8 Fitness Coaches Offer Their Best Tips to Build a Better Bench Press
The bench press. It’s one of the original rite of passage exercises that many lifters spend countless—oftentimes too many—hours toward perfecting. When you’re a beginner, you most likely performed two main exercises—biceps curl and bench press. Then, the love affair begins.
The bench press is an upper-body powerhouse move—it builds power, muscle, and strength in the chest, shoulders, and triceps because of a couple of factors.
- The fixed range of motion and the relatively straight pressing path allows you to lift heavier weight.
- Plus, lying on a weight bench gives you the stability to make this all happen.
During this quest to create more and more 1RMs, plateaus and soreness will eventually happen. You get stuck and might see no way out of your bench press purgatory—eight coaches who love the bench press as much as you give you expert tips to improve it.
Now, these tips are designed for you to try only some at once to find what works for you. If they do great, you have found a solution. If not, try the next one to see if your bench press performance will finally bust through its plateau.
1. USE FAT GRIPZ
Kevin Mullins Jr, CSCS, B.S. Kinesiology, University of Maryland, Director of Product Development – The St. James
For years, powerlifters, strength athletes, and bodybuilders have been using grip-fattening tools to increase the demand on the forearms and, in some exercises, the biceps and triceps during major lifts. And it works.
Yet, many miss out on the benefit of using Fat Gripz on their bench press—a common mistake since you aren’t exactly “gripping” your dumbbells or barbell during pressing movements so much as you are under the load fulcrum.
However, using a fatter grip point can dramatically increase pectoral muscular recruitment during your bench press – an epic trick of the trade to stimulate hypertrophy or improve muscle recruitment before a more maximal effort.
How to do it:
- The body possesses something known as the “irradiation concept,” a scientific principle that states that muscle contraction in one place impacts contraction in other areas. In its simplest explanation, the entire body is linked to improve total force production and distribute stress equally and appropriately across various muscle systems. Excellent for max effort deadlifts, squats, or stealing a new pullup PR…
- Not so beneficial to target (isolate) muscle tissue and create a greater sensation.
- Being able to wrap your entire grip around a barbell or dumbbell increases the recruitment of the triceps and forearm tissue – thus eliminating some of the load placed upon the shoulder complex and, ultimately, the pectorals.
- The fattened grip handles decrease your ability to utilize the lower and upper arm muscles and transfer more force into the pectorals, lats, and posterior deltoids (during the lowering phase). This will spice up your training effect without needing to add excess weight.
For muscle growth: Try three sets of 8 to 10 repetitions with a 4-2-1 tempo (eccentric, isometric, concentric) on your next flat or incline bench press. Go lighter and emphasize the feeling of breakdown instead of simply moving the resistance.
For strength: Try five sets of 3 repetitions at 80% of your 1RM to increase sensation and kinesthetic awareness. Press in the same manner you will execute your larger lifts and rest roughly 45 seconds between the Fat Grip version sets.
2. USE YOUR FEET
Allan Bacon, Ph.D., an online personal trainer specializing in training powerlifters and body composition clients
If you want a bigger bench, pay attention to your feet! Perfecting leg drive on the bench press allows you to be stronger, maintain the upper back position, and protect your shoulders simultaneously.
How Use Your Feet For a Better Bench Press
- Find comfortable foot placement. This will either be with feet flat or pressing through the ball of your foot.
- “Screw” or lock your feet into the floor.
- While holding your feet locked and starting with your torso farther up the bench, slide down the bench as far as your foot lock will allow and is comfortable to establish tightness. This typically ends up with your shins vertical.
- Tilt your hips up and back towards your shoulders (keeping your glutes in contact with the pad) while simultaneously retracting and depressing your shoulders.
- To maintain tightness through “leg drive,” use your feet to push both down through the floor and forward towards your toes (or away from you) to lock your whole body into place. In a flat foot stance (which I recommend), focus on pressing down and away with the outside of your heel.
- Maintain tightness throughout the lift from your legs to hips to shoulders.
A special note about the setup: if you find it excessively difficult to push both down and away from you, then your feet are likely in an incorrect position. If you feel you can push down but not away, then your feet are too far towards your shoulders. If you feel you can push away but not down, your feet are placed too far in front of you.
3. KEEP YOUR BUTT ON THE BENCH
Andrew Heming, MS, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, a former university head strength coach, professor, and trainer
If you want to compete in powerlifting, you must keep your butt on the bench. If you are going to brag about how much you can bench, you must keep your butt on the bench. If you want to know if the weight you are adding to the bar is making your upper body grow bigger and stronger, you need to keep your butt on the bench.
How to Keep Your Butt On The Bench:
- You can start by playing with the position of your feet in your set-up.
- If your feet are too narrow or too high up, you will increase the chance of your butt popping up. However, you can also use the trick I learned years ago to give you helpful feedback and fix this problem.
You can use this technique with your regular bench press training – no special exercises, no added time.
4. BOARD PRESS
Chris Cooper, strength and nutrition coach at Nerd Fitness
This bench press variation is when you put a wooden board or board on your chest to shorten the range of motion. The hardest part of improving your bench press is getting past sticking points in the lift. A common sticking point is when the bar is closest to the chest. Think about the last time you struggled on the bench.
If you shorten the range of motion using a board, you can push more weight, strengthening the sticking points where you’re struggling. You can also use the 2-Board Press when the full range of motion presses bothers your shoulders. This way, we can keep getting a training effect without compromising the joint.
How to Do It
- Set yourself up like you would for a regular bench press set with the addition of having a board on your chest.
- If you’re training with a partner, they can hold it for you; otherwise, putting it under your shirt works well.
- Unrack the bar and lower it to the board, and press.
The 2-board press can be used as a primary strength lift for the day in place of your scheduled bench pressing if strength is your goal. If more muscle is the end goal, put the 2-board press in your program as an accessory exercise aiming for 8+ reps.
5. BAND ASSISTED & RESISTED BENCH PRESS
Travis Pollen, Ph.D., exercise science professor and personal trainer
Many bench pressers’ weak point is their lockout. Two of the best solutions for attacking this weakness are band-assisted and band-resisted pressing, which allow you to overload the top of the range of motion (ROM).
How to do the Band Assisted and Resisted Bench Press
- In the band-assisted variation, you place a loop resistance band around your upper arms (like a bench shirt in equipped powerlifting).
- The band stretches as you lower the bar, providing lots of help at the bottom of the rep. The band allows you to use a heavier load on the bar than usual because you only experience the full load at the top of the ROM when the band is minimally stretched.
- In the band-resisted variation, you hold a loop resistance band in your hands and wrap it around your upper back.
- The band provides extra resistance at the top of the ROM in its stretched position. The band tension decreases as you lower the bar, lightening the overall load (bar plus band) at the bottom of the rep.
Choose one of the variations, and spend four to six weeks working on it once a week, either as your main bench variation or as an accessory. Three working sets of 6-8 reps will do the trick.
6. PIN PRESS WITH FEET UP
Mike T. Nelson, Ph.D., a metabolism fitness professional, strength coach, and educator specializing in tailoring nutrition to each individual’s needs
The pin press with feet up works excellent if your sticking point is at the bottom or a few inches of the bottom since 1) You’re doing it with a long pause to reduce the contribution of the soft tissue being in a stretched position, so the muscle has to work harder. 2) You are doing it with a flat back, so there is an increased range of motion for a greater training effect as an accessory movement.
How to do the Pin Press With Feet Up
- Set up in a power rack with safety pins at the bottom position.
- Lower the bar down to the pins with your feet up on the bench so your low back is also pushed into the bench flat (no arch or leg drive).
- After a bottom pause of 5 seconds, drive the bar up.
Best as an accessory movement after the more specific bench work is done; this can be on the same day or a separate day. Repeat for reps around the 5 -12 range for 2 to 4 sets.
7. 1.5 REP BENCH PRESS
Korey Van Wyk, CSCS Trade & Professional Acquisitions Editor for Human Kinetics
The 1.5 rep bench press can increase your bench press in multiple ways. If you are weak in the bottom half of your press (from off the chest to halfway up) will strengthen that portion of the lift and make you a more efficient presser by improving your technique. Repeating the bottom part of the lift allows you to practice hitting the proper spot on your chest and make sure your bar path is on track.
How To Do The 1.5 Bench Press
- Set up as you usually would for your standard bench press; lower the bar to your chest, but instead of pressing it all the way up, you will press it halfway up and stop. At the halfway point, pause for at least one second. This is an essential aspect of the lift as it will force you into proper wrist/elbow alignment and bar path.
- As for the exact stopping point on the way up, you have a little wiggle room. It doesn’t have to be exactly halfway up, but where you feel you’re the weakest in the ROM of your press. After the pause, lower back down to your chest and pause again. This second pause is another technique checkpoint, as explained above. Finally, after the second pause, explosively drive the bar off your chest to lockout.
One of my favorite ways to incorporate this movement into a program is in the warm-up. Rather than mindlessly pumping out reps a lighter weights, use that time to refine your technique and warm up simultaneously. Use it until you get to a weight that would cause you to get tired of the number of reps you’re doing. Then switch to regular reps for the remainder of your warm-up and work sets. That alone could be the spark you need for new gains!
8. SHOULDER TORQUE FOR A BETTER BENCH PRESS
Dr. Bo Babenko, a physical therapist and strength coach specializing in strengthening the mind, body, and soul
So, you’re ready to take your bench press to the next level? The concept of torque is one that any physicist will surely go on for about hours, but it’s sometimes lacking in the more advanced stages of strength training. I’ve heard of high-level lifters, who have set world records, and use the concept of torque.
Understanding these concepts can lead to improved shoulder mechanics and less injury. Getting better at “separating the bar“ is low, hanging fruit you can build in as you progress your pushing ability.
How to do It:
- When you bench press, it is simply rotating your thumbs out away from each other, which can also be thought of as supination ( like holding a bowl of soup in your palm).
- With the elbow straight, this is referred to as the external rotation of the shoulder.
Performing this, you improve the stability and power of your shoulder. Include these in your warm-up to prime the muscles with three sets of 12 reps with any weight under 90%, and consider including this between sets that build up toward maxes or weights above 90%.