You can build a bigger, stronger bench press without touching the bench press at your gym.
It sounds crazy, I know. But it is absolutely true.
*** This article also pertains to any female who is interested in building their bench press to bad ass levels too. The anatomy and physiology behind strength performance is not that different between the genders. This introduction to the article was written from the perspective of a male who has experienced the male cultural approach to the bench press. For what its worth, women are way better at avoiding ego - instead they do what is best for their potential. ***
I remember my earliest years of lifting well. I'd work my chest, back, shoulders, and arms as frequently as my soreness would allow. I'd tear through an entire month's MuscleMag while dealing with the repercussions of my 3rd protein shake that day. I'd cut out the articles that highlighted the chest and triceps - two muscle groups I was determined to have fill out like the guys on the cover. (Oh boy, how naive was I?)
Even before I fell in love with the gym I cared about my bench press. In fact, even while I was in high school I absolutely hated lifting weights. I just wanted to get through the day without being noticed, go to baseball practice if it was spring, and go home to fire up my Playstation 2. Yet, I'd still find myself getting into "rep-battles" with the empty bar. I don't quite remember how many I could do, but I don't feel crazy by saying I think I did 100 repetitions once.
There is just something about building a chest that looks like the body armor from Metal Gear Solid that makes men want to lift heavy things with their pecs and arms. Heck, they still test the bench press at the NFL combine - a sport that relies on so much more than just one's ability to generate pressing force.
Beginning with the onset of puberty, growing from fragile-ego driven competitive behaviors, and exploding from the introduction of the loaded barbell into young men's lives - the bench press is a point of pride, or depression, for many men.
There is just something about being able to load up at least a plate per side that pumps up a sixteen-year-old's chest. Literally and figuratively. That soon becomes 2 plates per side in their twenties. Each repetition is like a bike pump for their egos. Each additional plate a symbol of their masculinity. And so they bench more often.
Which is exactly the problem.
In fact, the guy benching the most at your gym right now probably doesn't do it more than once a week. Maybe he does it twice.
Chances are that he spends more time working on the other lifts, the supporting muscles, and the anatomical structures that support his performance on the bench press.
Sure, if you want to get good at something than you need to invest a little bit of time working on skill, and in this case, strength, acquisition. You can't expect to get better at riding a bike if you spend all of your time running (and imagining that you are on a bike).
What you can do though, is build up the supporting cast. In biking - you can supplement your riding days with core workouts, hill sprints, and even yoga in order to improve your mile splits and power capabilities.
For the bench press?
BUILD A BIGGER UPPER BACK
Your back is the "brick foundation" of your bench press. The bigger and stronger your lats, traps, and rhomboids are the more likely you are to throw around some solid weight on the press. Your back should be actively "pulling" the bar down towards your chest in a manner that effectively charges your back muscles like a spring.
That kinetic energy, when stored properly in the muscles, serves as a launching point for which your pecs, shoulders, and triceps can take off from - a key factor in getting out of that bottom sticking point.
These are my two favorite exercises for building a strong ass back:
PRONE DB ROW -
This variation is effectively a T-bar Row with two separate loads. Using two separate dumbbells allows for you to focus on the peak contraction of the lats, rhomboids, and middle/low traps. Your goal is to maximize scapular retraction and depression while keeping your T-spine in extension.
You can go heavy for sets of 4 to 6 or go lighter (as I did in this video) and hit high repetition sets that burn like ghost pepper flakes.
The Supinated Pulldown -
Chances are that if you go to the gym, then you are already using the lat pulldown machine in your workouts. The question is, are you using it right to support your goals of benching more weight?
The supinated hand position is perfect for the avid bencher because it minimizes the stress placed on the shoulder joint during the pulling motion. This variation also emphasizes scapular elevation and depression - two critical movements of the shoulder blades. While strengthening the lats vertically doesn't "seem" like it will help your bench - trust me it does.
Drop some load off the cables and really feel your set. Go for ten to twelve repetitions with a tempo of 2 seconds down, 2 seconds hold, and 2 seconds up.
UPGRADE YOUR SHOULDER HEALTH
Healthy shoulders can do a whole lot more work than unhealthy ones. But you knew that already. The key for us it to increase the mobility of the humerus in the shoulder socket while also addressing the ability to lock the scapula into a stable position. Luckily, each of these two exercises can do just that.
Want to learn more about shoulder health? Check out this massive article I wrote for Tony Gentilcore.
Prone Sphinx Wipers -
Washers, typically done standing against a wall/mirror, are a classic exercise used to increase the usable range of motion in the shoulder joint. Most individuals present some form of impingement at a point in the range of motion that either causes pain, ceases movement, or both. The wiper addresses this specifically.
Taking this mobility drill and translating it to the floor, however, allows for spinal mechanics to come into play. The spinal position better represents the curve that should be present in a loaded barbell/dumbbell bench press. This arch allows for greater force transduction during the press as well as better drive from the floor.
Duel Kneeling Pull Apart -
Forces act against the body all day, everyday. We need to be able resist these forces, especially if they come from a loaded barbell descending towards our chest. As the body accepts this additional load it actively distributes the weight throughout the relevant parts its structure.
No matter what bodybuilding magazine you subscribe to, the barbell bench press is not an isolation exercise for the pectorals. It is a compound movement that requires many elements of the body to contract in unison to create, resist, and equalize forces.
The duel kneeling pull apart allows the user to actively contract their glutes, core musculature, and lats while actively working the external rotators in the shoulder. This combination is the same as it would be on "game day", or the next time you bench.
The pull apart strengthens muscles deep within the back and shoulder girdle that contribute directly to the stability of the shoulder during a pressing motion. Anyone with a rotator cuff injury can speak to how uncomfortable a press can feel, even at low weights, when they feel their shoulder pinching on them.
Just kidding, you need to lift heavy stuff.
LIFTING THINGS FROM THE FLOOR
The deadlift translates to everything if you examine it through the right lens.
The deadlift makes you a better bench presser for one simple reason. You can lift heavier shit from the floor, so barring an injury or dysfunction, your body can handle the loads you are trying to bench.
Training a deadlift with appropriate form, regardless of variation, coaches the body on creating, managing, and mitigating forces. The strength and hypertrophy potential in the legs, glutes, and back are no joke either. Being stronger in these muscles means better leg drive during the amortization and concentric phase of the bench, which is where you put up or shut up.
The core learns to stabilize and brace the spine as well as communicate tremendous amounts of force from the lower body to the upper body. The deadlift can build the lats, broaden the back, and provide the necessary girth under the bar needed to press an awesome amount of weight.
Everyone should deadlift, somehow, someway. You should definitely deadlift, heavy, if you are looking to pump up your barbell bench.
(Besides - don't be that jerk who benches and skips legs).
For years I struggled to overcome the mindset that so many young men bring into the gym. I figured that I could simply press my way into the chest that looked and performed like my peers. Of course, I was wrong. Through years of experience coaching and observing the body I discovered that the best way to build the bench press was to build your body's foundation.
There is no doubt that you want to bench more weight. There is no doubt that you need to spend more time under the barbell, pushing correctly, in order to get to the results you crave. But, when you aren't training the bench press you need to be training the systems that support that lift.
Like a great skyscraper you'll only be as big as your foundation allows.
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