When someone comes to me complaining about their lagging bench press numbers, I always start by asking the same question: "Do you even bench?" Their knee-jerk answer is yes, but a closer look at their program tells me "barely." The training programs people show me generally resemble a random grab bag of every press or triceps extension type movement imaginable, with very little actual bench pressing.
So let's be clear. If you want a better bench, testing yourself with an all-out effort once a week isn't going to get you there. You need more volume in your life, in addition to a cherry-picked selection of assistance exercises that address your specific weaknesses.
Forget your other priorities for the next six weeks, and I'll fast-track you to a better bench press. First, let's address five of the most common problems I see, then I'll get you set up on a monster bench program.
Problem 1: You're addicted to 3x10 and "isolation"
Cure: Train like a powerlifter for a while
If you want to bench big, you should bench like a powerlifter. What if your goal is to build a better chest? Same thing.
I feel you shaking your head and imagining some big-bellied guy with a beard, so stick with me. It turns out that muscle growth may be more dependent on total volume (total work done) than what particular rep range you do it in. In a recent study, Brad Schoenfeld's lab concluded that equal-volume bodybuilding-style and powerlifting-style training protocols actually promoted similar increases in muscular size. But here's the catch: The powerlifting-style was superior for increasing maximal strength.1
Even if you're a bodybuilder who wants a better bench, then bench to perform the movement more efficiently—i.e., move more weight with good form—not to target and isolate the pecs. There are better exercises for isolation, such as dips, which train your pecs, anterior delts, and triceps through a greater range of motion.
Problem 2: You're using the decline bench
Cure: Don't even touch it.
Maybe you didn't even know this was a problem, but it is. Fact is, I've never known a strong bencher—or anyone with a well-developed chest—who dedicated time regularly to the decline bench.
The decline bench uses a shorter range of motion and puts less stress on your pecs and shoulders, so if your goal is to make your bench stronger, you're wasting your time here.
I can hear you now: "But my chest day has been the same for years!" Go read Problem 1 again. Be honest with your own weaknesses, and work on them. Don't further weaken them by ignoring them and doing things you're good at. Eliminate useless accessories and embrace the useful ones.
Problem 3: You're weak off the chest
Cure: Do some bodybuilding chest-work
You read me right. If you're having trouble getting the bar off the chest, you probably lack pec development and lack tightness at the bottom end of the bench. Your setup is too relaxed, and you have no tension under the bar.
First step: Do more pec flyes. Also do some wide-grip pressing work at lighter intensities and with higher volume. When the bar is lighter, you can also focus on pausing at your chest or slightly above for a few seconds before you press it back up. This will show you what it means to have a tight setup!
Problem 4: You're weak halfway up
Cure: Hit your shoulders
If you're struggling with getting the bar halfway up, the cause could probably be weak shoulder development, particularly of the anterior and lateral delts. Another potential weakness could be the clavicular head (upper pec area) of the pectoralis major.
Your prescription is to address the weak shoulders. You can do this a number of ways. Front and lateral dumbbell raises can help. You'll also see improvements from doing compound overhead pressing movements, including strict presses, push presses, and incline bench presses.
Seated Side Lateral Raise
Perform these reps at lighter intensities, and for a greater challenge, try pausing halfway during the range of motion. They're accessory movements to your goal right now, so don't push them too hard.
Problem 5: You're weak at lockout
Cure: Strengthen your triceps
Weak at lockout almost always means weak triceps. This is a common problem, and you can guess what my answer will be: Practice with close-grip bench presses and direct triceps isolation exercises, such as skullcrushers, kickbacks, or triceps push-downs. For your close-grip presses, use the same protocol I talk about for other weak points.
Build Your Own Bench Program
I've got a modular plan that can help you a get lot closer to being "as strong as you look" in just a few weeks. Here are the essentials:
- Up your training frequency. I'm constantly shocked by how little people who complain about a weak bench actually perform the exercise. Three sets once a week isn't going to cut it! If you want to progress, you have to bench at least twice a week. The more you do it, the more you'll improve.
- Attack your individual weaknesses. Take a moment to really dig deep and identify your individual weaknesses. For instance, if you know your primary problem is being weak off the chest, select isolation exercises that will develop the pec muscles involved in the bench press.
- Rest. Since volume is high, there should be a minimum of two days off between bench days. On a three-day-per-week program, the daily volume should be lowered since the weekly frequency is higher.
The following tables provide the skeleton of your training program. Don't mess with the bench press, its loading, or its progression scheme, but everything else can be personalized for your individual needs. This particular program was designed for someone who is increasing their benching frequency from once to twice a week, and who is weak off the chest but has a strong lockout, which is the most common scenario I see.
The first training day is high volume, with lower weights. This day gives you a lot of practice to hone your technique and prime it for the increased intensity at the next session. The next training day follows a progression toward a new 1-rep max and focuses on pause reps as well.
This wave progression allows for a steady improvement in volume and intensity over a six-week period, with no need to deload before you test your bench press max on the seventh week. That said, I suggest you take 3-4 days off between your last training day and the test.
Test your one-rep max!
- 1. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ratamess, N. A., Peterson, M. D., Contreras, B., Tiryaki-Sonmez, G., & Alvar, B. A. (2014). Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res.