To build the strongest bench press possible, identify and overcome your weaknesses. Here I break your bench press down into the possible weak points, and give you approaches to correct them. You’ll notice that some of these corrective actions overlap.
Training Maturity: Before you start worrying about weaknesses in your lift you should be at a relatively mature level in your lifting. Before you start working on your weaknesses:
- Perfect your bench press technique: The training approaches I share here will have limited effectiveness if you have poor bench pressing technique. While improving your technique your bench press max may decline in the short term, but in the long run you will be much stronger, and have much lower chance of injury.
- Build a solid foundation of strength. Before working on your weaknesses, develop your overall bench press strength. I recommend working on your fundamental bench press strength until you reach at least an intermediate level of strength on the bench press. (Strength Standards for Bench Press: http://www.exrx.net/Testing/WeightLifting/BenchStandards.html)
There are three potential points of weakness:
Now that your technique is fundamentally sound, and you have a solid strength base, let’s look at where your weak points may lie, and how to improve them.
- Weak off the chest
- Locking out at the top
- Failing at the ‘sticking point’
Weak off the chest: If you fail at the chest with heavy weights and are unable to press off the chest, this indicates a weakness in your pectorals and a lack of explosiveness. You can address these weaknesses with a number of improvements in your technique, your strength levels in certain areas, and building greater explosiveness.
Key Technique Points: To improve your power off the chest, focus on techniques to improve stability at the chest.
- Full body tightness: Keep your body tight from your feet through your traps. Do this by maintaining a strong leg drive throughout the press, and using that leg drive to establish an arch in your back.
- Keep your chest up: Take a deep breath into your lungs before bringing the bar to your chest. Hold your breath until you press through your sticking point. This helps you keep your chest up throughout the press. Feel your pecs stretching across your rib cage as the bar comes down, ready to snap explosively and drive the bar back up.
Strength Improvements and Training: Improving your strength in certain areas using these techniques can help you improve the power of your bench press off the chest.
- Chest/Pectoral strength: The pectorals are your primary mover to drive the barbell off your chest. Obviously, a strong bench press requires strong pecs. Strategies to improve your pectoral strength include:
- Bench pressing at a strength building intensity range, sets of 3-5 reps.
- Wide grip bench pressing, flat or decline. Note: wide grip pressing can put increased tension on your shoulders, if you have shoulder injuries or limited shoulder mobility take care using wide grip bench presses.
- Pre-exhaust your triceps. Perform triceps isolation exercises prior to benching, and super set triceps work with your bench presses. With your triceps pre-exhausted, your pecs will be forced to do more of the lifting.
- Supplemental bench pressing, any variation, in the 10-15 rep range for hypertrophy.
- Upper Back/Lat Strength: The back is your primary stabilizer for the bench press when the bar is near the chest. A strong upper back will give you a powerful platform to press from. For an optimal bench press, your back strength should be in relative balance with your bench press strength. Your back training volume should be balanced with your chest training. Emphasize free weight, compound rowing exercises.
- Shoulder/Anterior Delt Strength: Strong healthy shoulders are important supporting muscles for the bench press. Include overhead pressing and incline benching in your training program to strengthen your anterior delts. Note: Your shoulders are a relatively vulnerable joint. Take care to use perfect form and manageable weight when performing overhead pressing and incline pressing exercises.
Explosive Training: Improving the explosiveness of your bench training will condition your body and central nervous system to engage more of your muscle fibers at once to give you a more powerful drive off the chest. Concentrate on driving the bar off your chest with all of your power instantly.
Note: This does not mean you should bounce the bar off your chest. The bar should touch your chest lightly, and come to a stop before pressing it back up. If you have a tendency to bounce the bar off your chest, practice pausing at the chest before pressing.
- Speed Bench Press: Include some speed benching in your weekly training program. Speed benches should be at a sub-maximal weight, light enough so that you can drive the bar off your chest explosively with perfect bench press technique. Condition yourself to drive each repetition up off your chest with more speed than the previous rep. My preferred sets and reps for speed benching is 9×3 at 50-70% of your 1 rep max (1RM).
- Accommodating Resistance: Using bands and chains allow you to press a larger weight to lockout while the weight is lighter at the chest. Set the weight to your target at the top end (example if your target weight is 315, you might use 230lbs bar weight and 85lbs of chain). At your chest where the weight is lighter, drive the bar up as hard as you can.
Locking out at the top: Failing to lock your bench press out at the top may indicate a relative weakness in your triceps.
Key Technique Points: Lockout technique emphasizes locking out your elbows versus raising the bar.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together tightly. This prevents you from lifting your shoulders off the bench during the lift, greatly improving your bench stability and reducing the range of motion of the lift. Note: this is a good thing, this technique eliminates unnecessary range of motion. Think about trying to squeeze a quarter between your shoulder blades, and hold that position throughout the entire range of each repetition.
- Concentrate on locking the elbows, not pushing the bar upward. The bench press is complete when your elbows are locked. Instead of thinking about raising the bar, think of simply locking your elbows.
- Squeeze the bar, and try and pull it apart. This can help you activate your triceps, and turn your pecs and triceps into a rubber band ready to snap tight, propelling the bar upward.
Strength Improvements and Training: Your triceps are the primary movers to lock out the bench press. Improving your triceps strength will improve your lockout strength.
- Triceps Strength: A strong lockout on your bench press requires strong triceps. Effective triceps training is based on a foundation of compound triceps exercises.
- Lockout Training: Build your lockout strength by including heavy lockout training in your program.
- Bench Press Lockouts
- Floor Presses
- Board Presses
- Accommodating Resistance: Using bands and chains allow you to overload your bench press at the top end. Since the weight is lighter at the bottom of the bench, you can drive it up harder. This allows you to increase the top end weight above what you could normally press.
Failing at the sticking point: The sticking point is the point in your bench press where your pecs decline in force production and the emphasis transitions to your triceps. This should be at about the midpoint of your bench press. The key to getting past this transition point is getting the bar moving off your chest with enough speed so that the bar’s momentum carries it right past the sticking point and on to where your triceps have enough power to complete the lock out.
Key Technique Points: To drive the bar off your chest with enough power to get past your sticking point, you need to keep your entire body tight and keep your chest up. These points have been previously addressed.
- Maintain full body tightness by establishing strong leg drive and holding a tight back arch.
- Keep your chest up by taking a deep breath into your lungs and holding it until you are past the transition point.
Strength Improvements and Training:
- Accommodating Resistance: Using bands and chains, the resistance increases as you press the bar up. You have to drive it off your chest with enough speed, and keep driving the bar through your sticking point as the weight increases.
- Lockout Training: Using a lockout technique, set the starting position (rack lockout position, number of boards) to the approximate point at which your bench is at its weakest. Start your press from this point at a dead stop.
- Bench Press Lockouts
- Board Presses
Explosive Strength: Practice initiating the press off your chest with all of your power so that the bar speed and momentum carries it through your sticking point.
- Speed Bench Press: Using sub-maximal weight, practice driving the bar off your chest as explosively as possible. Concentrate on bar acceleration throughout each repetition until lockout, and try to drive each repetition up faster than the previous one.
Perfect your technique, build your strength foundation and then address the weak points in your bench. Use these approaches to maximize your bench press strength.