The bench press is a formidable exercise known to many as the egotistical movement performed by men who just don’t know any better.
First off, this is inaccurate and judgemental. Secondly, did you go and ask the guy benching 315 for reps if he was doing it for musculature development or just assume that?
The first thing I get from people who don’t bench press but think they have the right to share their uneducated opinions is, “you know the barbell bench press isn’t the best exercise for chest development right?” To which I can always confidently respond, “I don’t care, it is my favorite thing to do.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am always very courteous and say this in a jovial way with a smile on my face. The conversation is usually quite short when they realize I am confident in what I am doing, and I have my own reasons for doing it regardless of their self-imposed opinions on why I should or shouldn’t be doing it.
Having an enormous bench that elicits jaw dropping responses from all the other alpha males in the gym is what most of us are truly after. If you are trying to get a huge bench to impress a chick, I have news for you, she probably doesn’t care. If this is news to you, you need to read more fitness memes and jokes.
It is a well-known fact in a gym atmosphere having an amazing physique and heavy lifts is more likely to attract other men to talking to you than women.
Therein lies the first reason your bench is tiny.
The strength of your muscles isn’t gaining any traction on the bench press because the movement itself isn’t gaining any attraction from the stereotypical gym bunnies you were hoping for.
The first reason your bench is stuck at amateur levels is your mentality.
The mental side of lifting will always outweigh the physical side. Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell said himself:
“A lifter must raise his mental and emotional limits, or he won’t raise his weights.”
This should tell you something when one of the best powerlifters and coaches of all time is saying to get right mentally and emotionally. So, I will say again, your bench will not go up if you have the wrong mentality about why you want it to go up for.
The most successful lifters out there lift for themselves, nobody else. Your goals should be set by you, for you. The moment you decide you want a huge bench because you love benching and get that genuine rush from pressing a butt ton of weight off your chest is exactly when your bench will skyrocket.
Reason number two that your bench press is that of a small child is because you’re stuck making excuses and blaming the lack of weight you press on your genetics.
I have seen 140 pound guys bench press over 400 pounds. I have also seen 300 pound guys bench press over 1000 pounds. So, when your 180 pound ‘average’ build can’t hardly press 225 and you say it’s because you’re not built that way, you’re full of trash. That single statement is going to be responsible for your entire lifting philosophy.
Your genetics aren’t responsible for your chipmunk bench, your training philosophy is.
Now to change this you must go right to the core of who you believe you are. I have trained people who don’t think anything of themselves. They truly don’t believe they are capable of anything impressive. Once you get out of that mindset and realize that when you set a proper goal and work towards it using progressive overload, total volume, and proper training intensity it doesn’t matter who you think you are outside the gym. You can crush anything you set your mind to inside the gym. And that will transfer to your personal life in time as well. All these combined with a ‘can-do attitude and you’ll be the Caesar of benching in no time.
Reason number three, your foundation is weak.
You bench press all the time, and you have regularly benched twice a weak for 20 years, so how can your foundation be weak? I don’t mean your chest isn’t conditioned to press. A tree’s foundation is its roots. The larger the roots are and the more ingrained they are in the ground, the more stable the tree will be.
Likewise, the part of your body that acts as your foundation changes as your position changes. The foundation for a squat is quite obviously your feet and legs. Your foundation for a handstand is your hands and arms. If either of these things lack, it won’t matter how great of hip or shoulder mobility you have your biomechanics will suffer and the movement will not progress.
So, what is the foundation of the bench press?
The mid and upper back act as the primary foundation for your bench press. When your primary goal is to get a bench press so huge it makes a hydraulic lift jealous, you will focus every single accessory you do off bench press as your main lift.
Again, mentality plays into this. Do face pulls because they will help overall posture by building back musculature therefore increasing the strength of your foundation. Not because some arbitrary fitness trainer told you that you need to do them to help improve shoulder mobility.
Shoulder mobility is something that may be at risk when your primary goal is a heavy bench press because chest and lats are both internal rotators of the shoulder joint. But don’t worry about this! If you are experiencing pain or discomfort consult a trainer, athletic therapist, or physiotherapist that specializes in powerlifting clients.
Even if you aren’t a powerlifter, it is more beneficial for you to see someone who will give you exercises that will help you feel better and continue getting you closer to your goals. Never stop doing what you love and are good at because someone else told you it’s not good for you.
Reason number four, and possibly the most important of all is the lack of strength coming from your secondary muscles, your triceps.
Your triceps assist in every pushing movement you do. They may be responsible for holding you back if you haven’t developed the proper time and effort into strengthening them as you have other muscles.
Let’s get into some exercise selection now that we have discussed muscle groups that need work. Thinking of upper and mid-back, everyone now has their minds going towards lat pulldowns and cable rows.
A couple exercises that will probably give you more bang for your buck include lying prone Y raises on a bench at a 45-degree angle with a 3 second hold at the top. If you don’t feel this one right through your mid traps and rhomboids you are doing it wrong. Another great exercise is what I like to call the ‘high row-W-Y-W-high row’ with a 3 second hold in each position. See my Instagram for examples of the aforementioned exercises.
For triceps drop the cable pulldowns and do something that is going to force them to get Hercules strong.
On bench days your triceps should be the second muscle group you hit, and you should be hitting them with something hard. I’m talking dips, or weighted dips if you can, and close grip bench press. These two exercises focus on creating strength through the triceps in a pressing movement instead of eliciting muscular hypertrophy through general extension of the elbow, which is what cable extensions do. Nothing wrong with cable extensions. But were trying to get triceps so strong, scapegoating them as the reason your bench sucks will no longer be an option.
Reason number five, you are not progressively overloading yourself.
Progressive overload is one of the most important factors contributing to improvements in strength.
I find this to be the single most important part of hiring a trainer. It takes time and direct effort to calculate progressive overload and make sure you are accomplishing it. Your best bet if you do not have a trainer is to create a chart or graph and track every workout starting as soon as you can. This way you can make sure you are progressing month to month, year to year, and decade to decade.
These long-term strategies are what make hiring a trainer so tempting. A trainer will figure this all out for you and should have some sort of chart, graph, or reference to your constant progression.
There are lots of ways to measure progressive overload. To mention a few: your overall volume per workout is higher, doing the same volume of workout feels easier, your heavy lifts i.e., bench press is going up and recovery isn’t taking as long. These are a few things you can cognitively track and should take physical record of to assure progressive overload.
Reason number six, your volume or intensity is off.
Volume and intensity correlate strongly with progressive overload. They are both mediums to knowing if you are progressing or not.
Volume is one of the easiest things to track physically. You can track volume per workout or over the course of the week or month. Obviously, you are not going to increase volume every single workout. I recommend tracking volume per lift, per week and average it out for each session to make sure your average is going up.
A consensus for a periodized program would be that volume decreases as intensity increases leading toward a huge bench PR! Therefore, you want to track both over a long period of time, because there will be discrepancies day to day that make your chart look bad but are still insuring proper progressive overload through volume and/or intensity.
Reason number seven, you’re focusing on the wrong things.
This seems self explanatory, but it seems not to be for so many men trying to obtain that ever elusive 315 or even 405 bench. Here are 3 things to focus on to see your bench hit superhero levels!
- Anti rotation exercises
- Driving through your feet
- Keeping your butt on the bench
All three of these are crucial to building up to your all-time bench press max.
Anti rotation exercises are those that challenge your core in an isometric way.
Exercises like the Palov press and side plank are great examples of this. Being able to create sufficient force to remain stable and balanced on the bench, begin in the core. If you lift a barbell off the bench and find yourself wobbling, you need to take a step back and do some anti rotation exercises.
Second is driving your feet through the ground.
A sure-fire way to look like an amateur is to shuffle your feet around on the ground while you are trying to press the barbell off your chest. Use your feet as an extra bit of nitrous to the lift. They aren’t going to lift the weight for you, but by driving your feet through the ground you create sufficient force transfer throughout your entire body and give yourself a major boost of strength when challenging heavier weights.
The final cue is to keep your butt on the bench.
The way your chest musculature is designed makes it easier to press heavier weights from a declined position. Ever notice you cannot bench as much on the incline bench as you can doing flat bench and so on to the decline bench? This is where the arch comes in.
Arching is a powerlifting technique utilized to put the upper body in a more declined position, therefore being able to push more weight. I am not going to say much about arching your back aside from that fact that a little arch is healthy when benching to keep your spine neutral. In a neutral position your lumbar spine has a small arch. This is contradictory to everyone telling you to press your low back into the bench during any prone exercise. Press your butt into the bench by pushing your feet into the ground and squeezing your glutes.
All said and done, if you follow everything in this article you are sure to see huge gains in bench press strength and form.
Points to dwell on are not to worry what anyone else says is important for you to be doing. Focus on your own goals and hit them. Nobody else is living your life, so what do they care if they give you some crappy advice based on an opinion not related to your goals?
Make sure you are progressively overloading, utilize volume over a long period of time and intensity per workout to measure this. Get an experienced spotter to give you the proper cues, such as, keep your feet planted, push through the floor and squeeze your glutes.
Finally, make sure your programming includes the proper exercise selection in order for you to cater to your primary goal of bench pressing your mother-in-law into the next galaxy.