When it comes to fixing a lift the idea that one size fits all and talking in absolutes is just silly. I see all over the internet overly sensationalized statements to try to ruffle feathers without any context, trust me when I say you are not a trailblazer you are just silly. Anyone who has ever coached before knows that context is king so absolute statements should never be made, rather statements like it depends should reign supreme. In this article I am going to break down the bench press and look at some ways to improve it. This will mostly apply to strength athletes looking to improve their bench press and not bodybuilders looking to grow a bigger chest. Barbell bench press may be the last exercise I would prescribe for a bodybuilder to grow their chest, like I said context is king.
Before getting into the lift and breaking down sticking points, lets examine training frequency of the bench press. Being that it is a lift that doesn’t produce as much fatigue as the squat or the deadlift mainly due to the load being lifted is far less we can train it more frequently. Does more always mean better? In this meta-analysis by Grgic and colleagues 2018, they found that a higher frequency resulted in greater gains in muscular strength on multi-joint exercises in the upper body. With the frequency increasing 1,2,3, and 4 plus times a week the effect size increased right along with it. It seems like the more often you can bench the greater the results as long as you can recover from the training. The stronger you become the less frequency and volume you can handle and still be able to recover. I would recommend for beginners benching 3-4x a week and for intermediates to advanced 2x per week. Some of the strongest bench presser’s in the world may only bench 1x every 10-14 days just to give some more context. When it comes to volume things get a little bit more complicated depending on how you set up your training, which goes beyond the scope of this article. The volume I would recommend is between 8-20sets per week depending on your strength levels, recovery abilities, and how close you train to failure. Keep in mind these volume recommendations include shoulders, triceps, and chest, not just bench press.
When you start to analyze your bench press and where you might be weak you must perfect your setup. Without a perfect setup it would be hard to identify what the real issue is. In this video I go over how I like to setup for the bench press. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LDSjiLM10yg&list=PLJEsHSK2C8kbydAtu1m2hArKLvu75KTP2&index=2
There are a bunch of different ways to setup that will be extremely effective, this is just my way of explaining the intent of the setup. The key here is to setup the same way each and every time so you can build consistency within the lift and that way you can start to qualify each rep and build upon it.
Now that we have things somewhat standardized we can start to break down where you miss the lift. Keep in mind though if your technique is not dialed in and consistent than this other stuff won’t matter as much. If you miss the bench just off of your chest you are either losing tightness with your back and core or you have a weak chest. One can be fixed with more technique work and the other can be fixed with exercise selection. To target your chest and build it up you want to think about challenging the muscle as much as possible and this can be done with a wide grip bent bar bench variation, DB press work (flat, incline, decline), fly’s, or chest press machines. The biggest thing with these is to make sure you are set up to challenge the pec and not to just move weight. We have to disconnect with the idea of moving weight when it comes to growing a muscle. If you get stuck about midway up you either pressing in a straight line when you should be pressing more towards your face, you are letting the bar sink too much, or you need more pec and triceps work but within that specific range. A great exercise for this issue is a close grip floor press or a close grip spoto bench press, weighted dips are also great for building up this weak area. The spoto’s are preferred if you have an issue with letting the bar sink too much. If you are missing at lockout it is usually a combination of weak triceps and shoulders, overhead work and high incline press work is a great way to build that area up. I am not a huge fan of pushing heavy weight on triceps isolation work, this usually leads to elbow pain and tendinopathy issues that will become debilitating to keep pressing. It also doesn’t do much in terms of building a strong bench, any iso triceps work should be done in a higher rep range to keep stress off the elbows so you can keep pressing pain free. I like to work on muscular weaknesses in a multiple set of rep ranges and just trying to get as strong as possible in those ranges. For barbell movements I stick to the 4-8 rep range, for DB work I like the 6-12 rep range, and for any isolation work I like the 12-20 rep range. Regardless of rep range we want to prioritize the execution of the movement first and foremost and secondly, we want to progressively overload them in some manner each time we have those same movements.
I hope this gives you an idea of what is going on when you are looking to improve your bench press. Sometimes it takes a little outside the box thinking, finding the proper frequency and volume you can recover from is first, secondly you want to systematize your setup and perfect it, lastly you want to breakdown why you are missing the lift and then work on those weaknesses through exercise selection.
Grgic, J., Schoenfeld, B. J., Davies, T. B., Lazinica, B., Krieger, J. W., & Pedisic, Z. (2018). Effect of resistance training frequency on gains in muscular strength: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 48(5), 1207-1220. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0872-x