Have you been struggling for weeks or months to see any progress on the number of plates that you’re putting on the barbell? Are you a beginner to weightlifting and you want to upgrade your weight game from 10-pound plates to 45-pound plates? Along with the squat and deadlift, the bench press is still considered one of the true testaments of strength and power in weight training.
One of the most infuriating things that newcomers and experienced lifters alike go through is trying to bench more, but never being able to break past a personal best they set weeks ago. Let’s take a look at 12 ways to increase your bench press.
1. WARM UP YOUR MIND BEFORE THE BODY
Before you step into the weight room, you have to get your head in the game. This isn’t just some woo-woo positive thinking exercise; getting yourself amped up is based in science. Studies show that mental preparation before lifting results in better performance. (1)
You have to visualize yourself performing the exact number of repetitions you want. Go over every detail you can. Make your thoughts as real as the time in the gym. Get excited, get angry, and get ready to conquer.
Need more proof that this technique works? Listen to any interview with any of the most successful bodybuilders. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the best example. He constantly talks about how he plastered his room with pictures of the bodybuilders he wanted to look like such as Reg Park. Dream it and you can do it.
2. WORK UP TO IT
Now that you’re in the mental zone, it’s time to warm your body up for the workload to follow. It’s important to do a full-body warm-up such as a jog or getting a few minutes in on the stair climber, but after that you want to focus on specifically warming up the chest. What better way to properly warm up the chest than with a light version of the bench press?
Using no weight, complete five repetitions of the bench press using a tempo or lifting speed of 3 seconds lifting the weight, 1 second of pausing, and 3 seconds lowering the weight. Take a break and begin again, moving a bit faster and completing eight repetitions. After a short break, complete a third set of ten repetitions.
Now add 50% of your one-repetition maximum and perform five repetitions. Use the same format as above, take a break, increase the repetitions to eight then ten. Here’s what it will look like as a checklist:
BENCH PRESS WARM-UP
- 5 repetitions: no weight – bar only
- 8 reps
- 10 reps
- 5 reps: 50% of your 1RM
- 8 reps
- 10 reps
3. SKIP STATIC STRETCHING
There are two primary types of stretching: static and dynamic. Static is when you elongate a muscle and hold it in that position for at least 30 seconds. Static stretching is great for post-workout, but not so much for pre-workout. Some studies suggest that static stretching pre-workout can reduce your strength and performance.
What you should be focusing on is dynamic stretching, which is also called active stretching. As the name implies, this is when the muscles that you’ll be using are actively moving such as during arm circles and chest hugs. We recommend using dynamic stretches in between your warm-up sets from above. After each set of repetitions, perform the following dynamic stretches:
- Chest hugs: 20
- Arm circles: 15 each side
- Jumping jacks: 20
4. GO SMALL
You’re warmed up and stretched out, now it’s time to load up the barbell. Although it can be tempting to immediately throw a lot of weight plates on the bar – more than your current personal best – this might be what is holding you back. Instead of going big or going home, try going small for a change.
Chances are that you’ve been using 10 to 25-pound plates while trying to crush your current personal best – the number you can’t break out of. For the next 6 to 8 weeks, try using a weight as small as one pound of each side, but no larger than five pounds. So what if it stings your ego? Think about this: If you are increasing your weight two pounds every week for eight weeks, you’ll be benching 16 more pounds than you are today.
This micro-loading technique works, but it requires a great deal of patience. Think of where you’ll be in two months and don’t let your ego step in the way.
5. CHECK YOUR HANDS
The bar is loaded and you are now on the bench. Before you start pushing that barbell, give yourself a fast check in two things: hands and form. Let’s talk about the former first:
Hand placement or where your grip lies can make a huge difference in your results. In general, a wider grip such as just outside the shoulders will demand more from the chest. The more narrow your grip, the more activation occurs in your triceps.
To get the most from this exercise, make sure you are using a grip that is no narrower than your shoulders. The triceps will be activated, but they are not the stars of this show.
Also, be sure to let the barbell rest on the inner most part of the thumb, then wrap it around and across your fingers. Squeeze the bar tight to ensure a firm grip. Workout gloves can also help to secure your grip.
6. USE PROPER FORM
Continuing with the point above, making sure that your form is on point can make the difference between falling short and achieving your goal. Here is a start to finish breakdown of how you should be setting yourself up on the bench:
- Lie on a bench and place your lower back flat against the padding.
- Rest your feet flat on the ground or you can use the foot rest at the end of the bench if your feet don’t reach.
- Tighten your core and then pinch your shoulder blades together. Imagine squeezing an egg in between your shoulder blades.
- As we mentioned above, use a grip that is no narrower than shoulder width. Just outside of shoulder width is ideal, but this might not be the case depending on your build.
- Contract the chest muscles as you push the barbell straight up. Steady the barbell above your upper chest.
- Slowly lower the barbell towards your chest.
- Maintain a tight grip throughout the movement.
- Pause at the bottom then explosively push the barbell back up. Do not lock out the elbows.
- Immediately go into the next repetition
7. BENCH THREE TIMES PER WEEK
The more often you practice a skill, the better at it you’ll become. While you should not bench press every day of the week, you want to do it more than once. We recommend three times per week as the magic number, but twice a week is okay too.
Be sure to give yourself at least a day of recovery time in between each chest workout. If you are bench pressing three times per week, you’ll be pairing the chest with both legs and back. So your workout could be split like this:
- Monday: Chest / Back
- Tuesday: REST
- Wednesday: Chest / Legs
- Thursday: REST
- Friday: Shoulders and Arms
- Saturday: Chest / Legs
- Sunday: REST
If need be, switch the muscle group pairings to fit your schedule, experience, and goals. For example, maybe you want two days for chest and back, not chest and legs because your quads are already huge.
Looking for a killer arm workout? Check out our article on how to get big arms fast.
8. ALTERNATE YOUR BENCH STYLE
For each of your three days benching, we would recommend switching up your bench and equipment style. For example, if you perform the flat bench press on the first day, then use incline on the second day, and decline on the third day. If you find one of these benches useless or if you don’t have access to one, simply use the other two and alternate.
You should also alternate between using a barbell and a pair of dumbbells. You can alternate from workout to workout or week to week. No matter which pairings you choose, never use the Smith machine.
9. USE DIFFERENT ACUTE VARIABLES
Another way to increase your bench is to cycle through different levels of periodization. The three stages we would recommend are endurance, growth, and strength. Each stage requires a different set of acute variables. With some workouts you’ll use more weight and less repetitions while other workouts will be the opposite.
Again, you can alternate each of the following stages from week to week or workout to workout.
- 50% to 60% of your one-repetition maximum
- 12 to 15 repetitions per set
- 3 to 5 sets
- 60% to 70% of your one-repetition maximum
- 8 to 11 repetitions per set
- 4 to 6 sets
- 70% to 80% of your one-repetition maximum
- 4 to 7 repetitions per set
- 5 to 7 sets
10. LIFT WITH A BUDDY
How many times have you cut a lift short because you were scared that the barbell was going to crash down on your face? A lot of people who lift alone never tap into their true strength potential because of fear. The best way to lift with confidence is to bring along a gym buddy.
Research has revealed a lot about having a gym buddy around. First, you’ll be more motivated as you can encourage and psyche up one another. Second, you’re more likely to stick to your goal of increasing your bench press if someone else is holding you accountable. Finally, when you lift with a friend, you’re more likely to push yourself harder. (2)
11. STRENGTHEN YOUR WEAK POINTS
One of the biggest mistakes that lifters make is they focus on the stars of the show: the chest muscles. Don’t forget that you have several secondary movers or back-up muscle groups that are supporting those plates you are pushing up. If you want to increase your bench, you need to pay attention to the smaller and potentially weaker points of your physique:
Triceps: The muscles on the back of your arms are directly involved in stabilizing the weight and giving the chest muscles a much-needed boost. Be sure to target them once a week with rope pushdowns, triangle push-ups, and overhead extensions.
Front Deltoids: This stabilizing muscle can take a hell of a beating after an aggressive chest day workout. While you can dedicate a few sets of front dumbbell raises to this muscle, your main focus should be on stretching and recovery. A tear of the front deltoid means no more benching for months.
Explosive Power: Building explosive power can help you to get the barbell up during those last few repetitions with your goal weight. You can build explosive power with wall throws using a medicine ball and plyometric push-ups.
12. FOCUS ON RECOVERY
We’ve covered a lot of ground on how you can alter your training to increase your bench press, but none of that will matter if you aren’t as dedicated to your recovery as you are to your workouts.
Nutrition: Eat well-balanced meals of lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats throughout your day. Simple carbohydrates such as white rice are okay immediately following a workout.
Supplements: While not a requirement, supplements are a strong suggestion. Whey protein has been shown to support muscle healing and promote results. Other supplements to consider are creatine, glutamine, and arginine.
Sleep: Never skip on sleep. You should strive for no less than seven hours each night; eight to ten hours is ideal.
Once you reach that new goal for your bench press, be sure to let us know on our Instagram.
- Richter, Jeremy & Gilbert, Jenelle & Baldis, Mark. (2012). Maximizing Strength Training Performance Using Mental Imagery. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 34. 65-69. 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182668c3d.
- Aral S, Nicolaides C. Exercise contagion in a global social network. Nat Commun. 2017 Apr 18;8:14753. doi: 10.1038/ncomms14753.