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Bench Press – How to Lift More Weight and Increase Chest Size

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Bench Press

How much do you bench press? Possibly the most common question asked in the gym. The bench press is probably the most popular weightlifting exercise of all time, yet many people bench press incorrectly. So what is the infatuation with the bench press?

Like the squat measures lower body strength, you can use the bench press to assess your upper body strength. The National Football League (NFL) hosts a Combine every year for the best college football players in America. During the Combine athlete’s upper body strength is tested using the bench press.  A 1999 study found that muscular enduration repetition with an absolute load of 225 lb can predict one repetition maximum (1-RM) on the bench press.

Here are proven tips to help you increase your bench press:

Find the perfect grip! The complete bench press rep starts with finding your ideal grip on the bar. If your grip is too wide, you use more chest and expend energy pushing outwards. If your grip is too narrow, you use more triceps and expend energy pushing inwards.

A 1992 study on the effect of grip width on bench press performance found that the grip width affects maximal bench press performance of experienced male weight lifters. Observation of the bar path at different grip widths revealed a decrease in the bar’s distance from the shoulder as the grip width increased.

The increase in grip width correlated with a decrease in the force’s moment about the shoulder axis. Subsequently, the middle grip width, the sticking region, was found to occur at a greater vertical distance from the shoulder axis and lasted for a smaller percentage of the ascent phase than for the narrower or wider grip.

When bench pressing, the perfect grip allows you to incorporate muscle groups and power press straight up.

How do you find your perfect grip? Start with no weight on the bar, then lie back on the bench and unrack the bar—lower the bar to the bottom part of your chest about at your sternum. Now adjust your hands’ position on the bar until your forearms are as close to vertical as possible. This hand placement and bar position are your optimal bench press position.

Find your perfect bench position.

Lie back on the bench, not too close or too far away from the uprights, as this can either waste valuable energy when taking the weight off or hitting the uprights when you press the weight up.

Plant your feet firmly on the floor with your knees bent to an angle of approximately 80-90 degrees. Keep your feet flat and heels on the floor. Grip the bar using your perfect grip and ‘lock’ your shoulders back into the bench.

Squeeze your shoulder blades together, push your chest out, and then drive your shoulder blades back into the bench and ‘lock’ them into position. Lower your glutes down onto the bench and squeeze. Your body should be tight, and you should feel locked and secure on the bench.

NEVER put your feet on the bench, as this will make you dangerously unstable.

The Downward Phase: Take a deep breath, which raises your chest and locks your body to the bench even tighter. Lower the bar, keeping your elbows locked tightly in against your sides and your hands trying to pull the bar apart. Touch the weight to your chest.

Always press head, back, butt, and feet down to control the weight and get the most from the lift’s eccentric and isometric portion. Once the weight slightly touches your chest, you have entered the isometric phase of the lift. To build your chest correctly, maintain force across your chest muscles during the eccentric and isometric portion of the lift. Never rest the weight completely upon your chest.

To train to failure or not to train to failure, that is the question – do you want a bigger chest or not.

A 2005 study on training leading to repetition failure enhances bench press strength gains in junior athletes. Participants trained to failure had substantially larger increases in 6-RM bench press than participants who did not train to failure.

When you train to failure, you exhaust the glycogen stores located in the chest. Once the glycogen stores are empty, the chest does not have the energy it needs to produce power. The body responds to glycogen stores’ exhaustion in the chest by building more muscle to store more glycogen.

Suppose you want to build a massive chain, train to failure. As a rule of thumb, bench press 6 – 12 reps for 4 – 10 sets with 30 to 60 minute rest time between sets. New lifters should try The 5×5 Workout Program To Build Strength, And Muscle and experienced lifters should try the German Volume Training For Adding Size And Strength.

Here is a list of weight lifting exercises that build your bench press strength, chest size, and supporting muscles:

  1. The fly isolates and builds the chest, the primary muscle during the press.
  2. The bar dips build triceps and shoulder supporting muscles during the bench press.
  3. Cable Cross-over another exercise that isolates and builds the chest muscles.
  4. Skull Crushers build the triceps, a supporting muscle during the bench primary.
  5. Front Arm Raises build the anterior deltoid, a supporting muscle during the bench press.
  6. Reverse Fly builds the rotator cuff, a supportive group of muscles in the shoulder.

NEVER bounce the weight off your chest, as this can cause injury.

The Pressing Phase: Press the barbell up and drive with your legs. This transfers the power drive from your legs into pressing the bar quickly upwards. Drive the bar straight up as hard and as fast as you can. Exhale forcefully throughout the press as this will help you maintain torso stability.

Keep your feet firmly planted on the floor throughout the bench press. Drive the bar upwards as fast as you can and with as much power as possible until your elbows ‘lockout’ and your arms are straight, completing your first bench press.

How much should you bench press based upon your strength?

To find the strength of your bench press – first, determine your 1-RM; second, determine your bench press rate by dividing your 1-RM by your bodyweight; third, use the table below based upon your gender and age to find your rating. Finally, look to the first column to determine your strength rating on the bench press. For example, a 24-year-old, 250-pound man who bench-presses 300 pounds with a bench press rate of 1.2 (300/250) has good strength.

Bench Press Rate For 1-RM

Rating Age & Rate
Men 20-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60+
Excellent > 1.26 > 1.08 > 0.97 > 0.86 > 0.78
Good 1.17 – 1.25 1.01 – 1.07 0.91 – 0.96 0.81 –  0.85 0.74 – 0.77
Average 0.97 – 1.16 0.86 – 1.00 0.78 – 0.90 0.70 – 0.80 0.64 – 0.73
Fair 0.88 – 0.96 0.79 – 0.85 0.72 – 0.77 0.65 – 0.69 0.60 – 0.63
Poor < 0.87 < 0.78 < 0.71 < 0.64 < 0.59
Women 20-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60+
Excellent > 0.78 > 0.66 > 0.61 > 0.54 > 0.55
Good 0.72-0.77 0.62 – 0.65 0.57 – 0.60 0.53 – 0.59 0.51 – 0.54
Average 0.59-0.71 0.53 – 0.61 0.48 – 0.56 0.43 – 0.50 0.40 – 0.50
Fair 0.53 – 0.58 0.49 – 0.52 0.44 – 0.47 0.40 – 0.42 0.37 – 0.40
Poor < 0.52 < 0.48 < 0.43 < 0.39 < 0.36

Meta-Physics of the bench press

The bench press, like all exercises, must obey the laws of physics. While bench pressing, the force travels from the chest to the shoulders through the arms (primarily triceps) and finally through the hands to the barbell. Physics says energy must be transferred, and therefore some part of your chest, shoulders, arms, and hands are always at work when you bench press.

By applying physics to a lift, you determine which muscles get worked. Physics requires muscles to respond to weight at the point of force. The closer the muscle is to the point of force, the more it reacts to the force. The shoulders, a rotating muscle group with three parts, make many of the bench presses possible. Consequently, there is a direct correlation between chest and shoulder size. Performing the shoulder press and other shoulder exercises improves your lift on the bench press.

By changing the point of force, you change the muscles that respond to the exercise. This concept seems simple when looking at extremes like leg extensions and bicep curls. As we move closer to the norm and address exercises that need to target a specific body area, this concept becomes more complex.

The chest is a complicated body part with many different moving parts and supporting muscle groups. Most people see the bench press as a chest-building exercise, but it also builds the arms, shoulders, and back. The bench press is on the Mount Rushmore of compound exercises. The bench press forces the chest and supporting muscle groups to grow horizontally, vertically, and in-depth.

The Horizontal approach and results

The horizontal pressure of the bench press begins at the sternum and extends to the arms. You control the bench press’s horizontal force through your handgrip on the bar—the three types of handgrips – narrow, shoulder, and wide grip.  The relationship between grip, force, and hypertrophy is an inverse correlation. They go in opposite directions. As the handgrip narrows on the bar, the force and hypertrophy widen, and as the handgrip widens on the bar, the force and hypertrophy narrow.

A research study on the effect of grip width on bench performance showed that the bar path’s statistical comparisons indicated that as grip width increased, the horizontal and vertical distance from the bar to the shoulder decreased. The study results demonstrated that a shoulder-width resulted in significantly increased bench press performance than the narrow or wide grips.

The distance that the weight is moved over time determines the amount of work performed on the bench press. The further the distance, the more work performed, which directly correlates with muscle hypertrophy, endurance, and power. In short, the harder you work up to a specific point, the greater the results.

Bench Press Anatomy

Therefore narrow grip builds the arms, mainly the triceps and the back of the shoulder. Subsequently, shoulder grip works the top of the chest and shoulder. At the same time, a wide grip works the inner chest and center of the shoulder.

By changing your hands’ grip, you change the force required to lift the weight and how your muscles respond to a workout program. Each grip is a different exercise and provides different results. A horizontal approach creates horizontal results across the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

The Vertical approach and results

While you can use the horizontal approach to grow your chest from your sternum to your shoulders, the vertical approach works best from clavicle to lower chest. You control the bench press’s vertical force through the bench’s vertical position—the three types of bench adjustments that can be made – decline, flat, and incline.  The relationship between decline, flat, and incline is a direct correlation.

A study examining the relationship between bench angle and muscle activation supported using a horizontal bench to achieve muscular activation of both the upper and lower heads of the pectoralis.

A bench incline angle of 30° or 45° resulted in greater muscular activation during specific time points, suggesting that it is crucial to consider how muscular activation is affected at various time points when selecting bench press exercises. When the bench was adjusted downward, the pressure and hypertrophy decline on the muscles, and as the bench is adjusted upward, the pressure and hypertrophy incline on the muscles.

Therefore the decline bench press builds the lower chest and the triceps. Subsequently, the flat bench press works across the chest and shoulders. Finally, the incline bench press works the upper chest and shoulders. By changing the bench press position, you change the pressure applied to the muscle and respond to the exercise. Like the handgrip, each bench press position is a different exercise and provides different results. A vertical approach creates vertical results across the chest, shoulders, and triceps.

The in-depth approach and results

The last element of physics that affects the bench press is time. The body has two types of muscles, which are fast and slow-twitch muscles. Fast-twitch muscles are more massive and surface muscles, while slow-twitch muscles are smaller, deeper muscles. The process takes to activate different types of muscles is based upon a muscle’s time under tension.

A research study was conducted on 20 resistance-trained subjects. They were divided at random into two groups differing only regarding the bench press pushing speed.

Both groups were trained twice a week for three weeks with a load equal to 85 % of 1RM and monitored with the encoder. After three weeks, a significant improvement was shown in the fast push speed group: the maximum load improved by 10.20 % and the maximal speed by 2.22 %, while in the slow push speed group, the effect was < 1 %. The study showed that high-velocity training is required to increase muscle strength in subjects with a long training experience. This is possible by measuring the individual performance speed for each load.

By speeding up the concentric and slowing down the eccentric part of a lift, it can engage the primary and secondary muscles more. In addition to time under pressure, the rest time varies how the body access energy, which determines power, endurance, and muscle hypertrophy.

Vertical bench press

By increasing rest time, it increases the use of ATP – CP, which increases muscle power. Subsequently, decreasing rest time increases the use of oxygen, which increases muscle endurance. Finally, the average rest time of around 60 seconds increases Glycogen’s use, which causes hypertrophy. To get the most out of the bench press, time under tension and rest time must be maximized.

Large, surface muscles like the back, chest, and butt have a much higher ratio of fast-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch fibers dominate smaller, deeper muscles like supraspinatus muscle (the rotator cuff), quadratus lumborum (deepest abdominal muscles), and piriformis (smaller buttock muscle). Variations in fiber-type dominance indicate a difference in function between muscles. The large, surface muscles, dominated by fast-twitch fibers, should rest most of the time and be recruited for short-duration, powerful movements.

Smaller, deeper muscles dominated by slow-twitch fibers are postural muscles, optimally positioned for long-duration and low-intensity activities. Muscles with a balanced ratio of fiber types offer variable functions. Deliberate, detailed, specific rest time and speed of concentric and eccentric motions control an exercise’s duration and intensity.

Mixing it up

The horizontal, vertical, and in-depth approaches must be combined correctly to get the most out of the bench press and reach the desired goal. The maximal bench press performance is influenced by biomechanical and anthropometric factors, including bar path, grip width, chest depth, and limb length. A flat bench press with a narrow grip and 60 second rest time where the concentric motion is fast and the eccentric movement is slow creates different results from a flat bench press with a wide grip and 30 second rest time eccentric motion are slow.

Because there are three vertical, horizontal, rest times, and times under pressure, 81 versions of the bench press give 81 different results. You can’t perform 81 versions of the bench press during a workout. The key is to identify the desired goal or outcome and then select the vertical, horizontal, real-time, and time under pressure approaches. For example, if you are looking to build bigger triceps, then the approaches are predetermined. The chart below shows you how to select your bench angle, handgrip, rest time, and time under pressure.

Bench Press Chart

FAQ

What is the proper position for the bench press?

1. Lie on a flat bench in a supine position.
2. Plant your feet firmly on the floor, wide enough to press them into the ground.
3. Place the head, shoulder blades, and sacrum firmly on the bench.
4. Maintain a natural arch in the lower back.
5.Grasp the barbell with a pronated grip.
6. Place the hands approximately 6 inches wider than shoulder-width.

What is the proper technique for the bench press?

1. Place the head, shoulder blades, and sacrum firmly on the bench.
2. Keep the feet planted firmly during execution.
3. Keep the wrist firm.
4. Never bounce at the bottom of the lift.
5. Always use a qualified spotter when performing the bench press.
6.When lowering the bar, progressively tighten all involved muscles as the bar approaches the chest.
7. When pressing the bar, press feet, butt, and back down, push the chest out and arms up.

What are some common mistakes to avoid for the bench press?

1. Lifting head, shoulder blades, or butt off the bench while pressing.
2. Lifting the feet off the ground while pressing.
3. Keeping the wrist loose and flexible.
4. Bouncing the weight off the chest to press more weight.
5. Holding breadth during the eccentric or concentric portion of the lift.