Eliminate your poverty bench press with these strategies
February 18th 2019
“I can’t seem to make any progress on my bench press. How can I improve?” Ah, it is a common concern for many lifters, especially newer lifters. In fact, some veteran lifters also experience a relatively low bench press max for some odd reason. So, what gives?
For the majority of lifters, there is good news. There are several tactics we can implement so that we can see more progression with our bench press - some of which are fixing our technique, working on our accessories, to name a few. However, there are many cases where lack of experience is shown through inadequate programming and impatience.
Follow your program and make sure you understand what works
There is a reason why many elite lifters program themselves or hire a coach. They understand that in order to progress their monster lifters, they need to do careful planning. This is one of the reasons that make strength training difficult for casual lifters. In order to get better, lifters need to understand why their programs work and understand the fundamental principles of creating a strength training program.
For beginners in strength training, they can select ANY program they want. Everything works because you are so new to the sport. Sure, some programs may be tailored better than others but for a beginner, you will still gain a lot of progress. Some of the beginner strength training programs I recommend are Greyskull LP and Starting Strength.
Commit to your program and make sure it aligns with your goals. If you are reading this article, I am assuming you want a big bench press. A typical beginner strength training program will have you bench pressing 2-3x a week. And for a long time, you will see that you are progressing.
Until you stall…
And this is when the question comes, “My bench press plateaued! How can I improve my bench press?”
Well, you would need to analyze your current situation and make a judgment call. Everyone has a different scenario and it would be impossible to make a general plan that would work for everyone. However, there are a few ideas that can be used by everyone.
You need to change something. Period.
There is a reason why you are stalling… are you sleeping enough? Are you slowly increasing your bodyweight? Do you have strong arms and shoulders? Are you doing enough back work?
Everyone has there own strengths and weaknesses that will be revealed with their workout program. It is up to you as a lifter to identify these considerations and act appropriately.
For example, let’s say you weigh 180bs. If you are trying to get to a 225lbs bench press 1 rep max and your best 1 rep max is 205lbs for the past year, you are doing something wrong. Here are a few questions for you:
- Have you gained any bodyweight last year?
- Did your rep max improve?
- Did you run the same program for the entire year?
- How are your sleep and recovery?
These questions are just the tip of the iceberg. You need to determine what you want to change and hold everything else constant to isolate the issue. Only then will you be able to understand yourself and what is holding you back.
If you have not seen my journey to hit a 225lbs bench press, it was a “fun” ride. It took me a little less than 6 years, with all the injuries and setbacks that occurred. But I am not done improving just yet. I have recently hit a 230lbs bench press last month and will be looking to improve again in the near future.
Increase your volume and/or intensity
Do you know why you were making progress with your linear progression programs? Because after each successful workout, you added more weight to do next time, which increased your total work capacity and volume accumulated. As a result, your body was forced to adapt and get stronger… until it is no longer able to recover in time for the next workout. This is one reason why many lifters see progress diminish or even plateau.
One strategy to implement is to vary your volume or intensity. For example, are you doing 3 sets of 5 reps at 75% of your 1RM bench press? Here are two options you could do:
- 4x5 at 75% 1RM
- 3x5 at 77-80% of 1RM
Just because your body cannot adapt as quickly as before does not mean your body is not working. You can still make progress with your bench press. You need to be calculated and logical with your programming choices since training volume and intensity will determine how much progress you can make.
Your form is more important than you think
Are your feet firmly planted on the ground? Are you using an arch to bench press? These small considerations can make a substantial impact on how much you can bench press. This may be one reason why you are still shaking while you bench press.
In the same attached article, I went over how important leg drive is for a bench press and how legendary powerlifter Jennifer Thompson uses leg drive to maximize your bench pressing potential. She holds multiple bench press records for her weight class and continues to astonish the powerlifting community with her monster bench press.
If I have not driven this point across yet, here it is! Actively planting your feet on the ground and driving your heels into the ground will create a better position for you to bench press.
Ever notice how much instability you have when your feet are not firmly held onto the ground? Practicing your leg drive will produce dramatic results for your bench press.
Bench press grip width
This topic has some controversy in the strength training world. Ultimately, it is up to the lifter to determine how wide to grip the bench press. However, there are data points that we can reference to give us an idea of some ideal bench press grip widths to use in order to find out a good range for the bench press grip width.
Using 1.5-2x your chest width should be your most optimal grip for the bench press. Obviously, anatomical differences will make everyone’s bench press grip width vary but this is the most common range the current big bench pressers fall in between.
And it would make sense. You want to have a wide enough grip to shorten the distance between your starting position and your chest. And at the same time, you want to also be in a powerful position where you can use your triceps, chest, lats, and leg drive to complete the lift.
What bench press assistance exercises should I do?
Before I go into any bench press assistance exercises, let’s not get distracted from our main goal: to increase our flat bench press max. And what is the best way to do that hands down?
By doing more flat bench presses and changing intensity and volume so that our body can better adapt to the training stimulus.
Doing anything else would fail in comparison to focusing on building a big bench. For example, if you want to play the piano, do you practice on a similar instrument that can hopefully carry over to the piano? Or do you practice the piano? It is the same concept.
You will get better at the bench press if you program smartly. By slowly progressively overloading your bench press volume and intensity, you are building up your work capacity, which will eventually let you have a higher bench press max. Recovering, eating, training effectively and being patient will reward you greatly.
With that said, you can also theoretically increase your bench press max working the same muscles used: the chest, the arms, the lats, the upper back, etc. Finding exercises that hit all these muscle groups should help you gain more muscle, and eventually strength.
Incline bench press
Do you need to incline bench press if you are trying to increase your bench press max? I go in-depth on the pros and cons if you do decide to add incline bench presses to your program. Ultimately, it is a good exercise to do; in fact, it is so well-known that legendary powerlifter Ed Coan even used it for his bench press assistance exercise.
Weighted dips are good. Bodyweight dips are good. They are great for hypertrophy and will help you pack on muscle. It is one of the primary exercises used in the beginner strength training program, Greyskull LP.
Having strong shoulders will never be a weakness. I have been doing overhead presses in all my strength training programs and they are great for overall upper body strength development. They are a compound movement that works almost the same muscles are the bench press.
Working on your stabilizer muscles may also help your bench press max jump. Strengthening your weaker muscles will allow your body to not be held back by its weakest links.
And I can go on and on about the different bench press accessories you can use. But to be frank, your time will be better spent if you practice your bench press more. So, pick one or two bench press accessories and re-evaluate after a long period of time.
Okay, but my bench press is still stalled. Am I doing something wrong?
Calm down. Breathe.
If you are doing all the right things, it will take time for you to see results. If everything produced instant results, seeing a 600lbs bench would not be as impressive as it is now.
So, enjoy the journey. It is filled with victories and defeats. Peaks and drops. Sometimes, you will enjoy the benefits of great days. And on other days, you wish you never went to the gym. These situations are normal and it is part of the process of building a big bench. It starts by accumulating small victories each workout, which cascade into big PRs in the future. All you need to do is to make sure you are doing everything right - eating enough, sleeping enough, maintaining low stress, and waiting for your body to do its thing.
What are some actions you can do? This goes back to our first bullet point on understanding why your strength training program works for you. You can take a deload, which usually lasts about 1 week where you keep the volume the same but drastically decrease the intensity. This serves as a method to allow your body to catch up on recovery.
Another plan is to just take a step back and decrease volume, intensity or both and start over again. Sometimes, this may be a better option if you are going through a stressful time period where you had to focus your energy on other projects. Let us become aware of the situation and reprioritize our efforts to the ultimate goal - to be the strongest version of ourselves.