Monday 11 January 2016

A Simple, Overlooked Way to Increase Your Bench Press

“What do ya’ bench?” This question is often asked in social gatherings by people who don’t know anything about lifting but want to sound like they do. However, the answer to this question may be an important one for you. While often over-hyped and not a good fit for everyone, the bench press is a proven exercise for building upper body strength. If you bench has stalled and you want to get it moving again, I have just the thing for you!
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A Common Sad Story
A while back I saw a guy try to do 5 reps with his one rep max.  Each rep he bounced the weight of his chest a little harder and each rep he simply raised his butt a little more off the bench to cut his depth and made it more of a decline press. With the help of “spotter” he made the 5 reps.

As I reflected on, I realized 3 things: 
  1. I’ve seen this countless times before. You can go into any mainstream fitness centre (i.e. not a powerlifting gym), anywhere in the world at any time and if some guy is bench pressing, you will see this.
  2. Although his effort was impressive, I knew he would be stuck at that weight for a long time
  3. This bro-style of bench pressing brings a host of problems…
Problems with the bro-style bench press:
  • You learn to rely on the elasticity of your connective tissues instead of your muscular strength to get the bar off your chest
  • You increase your risk of injury for your shoulders and sternum
  • You are never practicing the same lift. Each rep is a shorter range of motion. Also, as the butt comes up more each rep, each rep is done more and more in a decline position.
  • The excessive arching the often accompanies the butt lift can damage the facet joints of your lumbar spine (low back)
  • You use a weight that is too heavy to actually make strength gains (see below for more on this one)

The Internet Answer to a Stalled Bench
Is your bench stalled and you want to get in moving again? The typical internet solution for this is usually to: rotate max-effort exercises, do dynamic effort work, change your grip, do forced reps, change your tempo, do extra triceps work, add bands, add chains, do isometrics, try cluster sets, do eccentric work, use a fat bar, do rest-pause training, use a special periodization method (e.g. linear, block, undulating or conjugate), use a cambered bar and/or use weight releasers…

Note: the above can be helpful for advanced lifters who have truly master what I'm about to share below...

What Most Folks Need to Do to Get Their Bench Moving Up Again
1) Be willing to check your ego at the door
Never let your ego dictate your training decisions. Years ago a wise person once said, "come to the gym to build strength, not to demonstrate it." If you want to show off, sign up for a powerlifting competition. When you come to the gym, train to get stronger.

2) Start with proper bench press form
Unless you are competing in powerlifting (in which case you should seek out a powerlifting coach), here is a video to give you some helpful pointers on how most folks should bench press.

3) Bench without a spotter
In most gyms, you have a better chance of winning the lottery than you do finding a good spotter. Countless training sessions have been ruined by an incompetent (though well-meaning) spotter who stabilizes the bar and helps lift each rep while yelling, “It’s all you bro!”

Instead of becoming spotter-dependant, move a bench inside a power rack (assuming no one needs the rack at that time for squatting). Set the safety rods low enough that you don’t hit them when your chest is up, but high enough that you can’t get pinned under the bar if you something happened.

See the above video for this set-up in a power rack

4) Start with a weight you can do for 10 reps
While light weights are a waste of time and the old advice to train heavy is true, training too heavy is what causes many people to hit a plateau with the bench press. As in the example I described above, the guy was trying to use a weight that if he was at a strictly-judged powerlifting competition he would barely be able to do. As a result, he was training with over 90% of his 1RM (one rep max). While this range can be helpful for advanced lifters for a short-term peak in strength before a competition, this range is a very difficult to make steady strength gains in. For most folks, most of the time, use a weight that is 80-85% of one’s 1RM.

To get your bench moving again, start with a weight you honestly think you can lift for at least 10 reps any day. Note: after you fix the other problems below, you may find you can only get 5 reps with this.


5) Maintain consistent range of motion
Another problem with the way many people bench press is that they don’t touch their chest at the bottom of each rep. Instead, they stop at some arbitrary spot mid-air and then press the weight back up again. The problem with this is that the bottom position inevitably drifts up as you progressively add weight to the bar.

Note: while touching the chest is the standard depth for the bench press in powerlifting competition (and for anyone who wants to go online and brag about how much they can bench), it may not be a safe depth for everyone. If you have shoulder problems or long arms and you find that the full range of motion bench press needs is causing you shoulder pain, you may want to decrease the range of motion a bit. However, you want to ensure consistent depth (e.g. press lying on the floor or press to touch a board on your chest). Also, don’t unnecessarily cut depth as this only builds your ego.

6) Pause at the bottom
Because most folks are used to bouncing the bar off their chests, a great solution is to pause. Lower the bar under control, pause with the bar completely still at the bottom and then explode back up. This is humbling at first, but you will thank me later.

7) Keep your butt on the bench
Here is a great tip I learned years ago from a Powerlifter and Division 1 strength coach (sorry I can’t remember the guy’s name). Lay a bath towel on the ground and place a 2.5lb plate in the middle. Fold the towel in half and stick the folded ends under your butt when you bench. If you can keep the weight and towel from coming out, you will have kept your butt down. Check out this video for details.

8) Only do perfect reps
While you are re-learning the bench, get your phone out and film each set. Then, watch your sets carefully. Every rep from the first to the last in the set should look the same. Also change the name of your warm-up sets to “practice sets” and don’t miss this opportunity to practice and refine your technique.

9) Ensure sufficient practice
Early beginners can benefit from benching 3x per week to learn the movement. From there you can move to training the bench once every 5 days. As you move to the intermediate level, benching heavy once a week and then a lighter session (or speed session) later in the week to practice your technique while allowing recovery.

Bonus tip: Structural balance
Aside for those who are specializing in powerlifting, give equal attention all upper body movements (i.e. include rows, pull-ups and overhead pressing – if you can safely do so). The body will only allow so much asymmetry. Make sure you have good upper body structural balance. If you can bench way more than you row, it is time to give some back muscles some needed attention.

Bottom line:
This problem is a classic example of what we all tend to do with training – look for a complicated solution to a simple problem. Years of lifting, learning and coaching has taught me that 99% of the time, a simple solution is usually the fastest way to produce the results you want. 


  1. Really enjoying your reinforcement writing, Andrew, and love the tactile 2.5 lb. towel. Maybe he will come out of the shadows and into the light to claim his effect on you☺️#tellthesory