If you’re asked “how much do you bench, bro?” and your answer is “not enough”, I truly sympathize with you.
The barbell bench press is known for improving chest strength, size, and power, but performing it to perfection can be quite a challenge. Many people struggle to develop a bigger bench press despite going up in weight and increasing the number of times they bench per week. They often push harder, not knowing they’ve reached the dreaded “plateau”.
Although it can be frustrating, doing unmanageable sets of reps is not the answer to your problem. The key to getting over your plateau lies in making some minor changes in your form, bench setup, and exercise regimen. These will drive your bench press upwards and increase your chest size and strength.
And how do you go about doing that? Let’s take a look.
- First, A Lesson In Chest Anatomy
- Energy Transfer, And How The Power Move Motivates Your Bench Pressing Success
- What Exercises Can Increase Your Bench Press?
- Variations To The Bench Press
- Tips To Build A Bigger Bench Press
First, A Lesson In Chest Anatomy
Figure, Pectoralis Muscles. Image courtesy Dr Chaigasame] Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545241/figure/article-32427.image.f1/
Yes, you’re trying to build muscles through bench press, but what muscles are you targeting, exactly? Let’s do a quick overview of what’s what.
The pectoral region has two heads: The sternal head and the clavicular head.
- The sternal head is the meaty part of the chest - the part associated with a big chest. It connects to the sternal and clavicular cartilage and aids in shoulder adduction
- The clavicular head, on the other hand, refers to the outer region of the chest, near the shoulders. It connects to the medial clavicle (collarbone) and is essential for overhead shoulder motion
Both heads combine to move the shoulder joint, which is incredibly essential to the overall development of your chest.
And why is that?
Well, our body is a sum of its parts. While parts can perform their functions individually, they have to integrate to ensure mobility. Therefore, if you want to increase the size of your bench press, you will also need to develop and maintain your shoulder joints, ligaments, elbows, and triceps - basically, all the muscles that support your chest muscles.
Luckily, you won’t need to go for an altogether new exercise regimen to accommodate these supporting muscles because most of them are already involved in bench-pressing. Here’s how the exercise puts them to use:
- Your anterior deltoids - or front shoulders - help raise your shoulders away from the torso, keeping them in position to hold the bar
- Your triceps assist in shoulder abduction and can help you get the weight overhead by unlocking the elbow
Energy Transfer, And How The Power Move Motivates Your Bench Pressing Success
Most people (who do the exercise with the right form and posture) experience sore shoulders and glutes after bench pressing.
The thing is, we exercise chest muscles and supportive muscles to build strength, but seldom pay attention to energy transfer. Energy translates well on the bench through 5 points of contact, where your head, shoulders, and hips are touching the bench and your feet are planted on the ground. Together, they give you the perfect form.
Maintaining The Proper Form: 101
Doing exercises without proper form and bench press setup will not yield the desired results. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but it's the truth. So, if you want to be confident that you’re bench pressing to a bigger, stronger chest, you might want to focus on maintaining proper form.
Here’s how you can position yourself for a bench press:
- Lie down on the bench in a position where your eyes are directly under the bar. This will help you maintain better form and also prevent the bar from hitting the pins as you inch closer to finishing a rep.
- Lifting your chest slightly, squeeze your shoulder blades down, then place your hands wider than shoulder-width apart on the bar.
- Wrap your thumbs around the bar tightly as if you’re trying to pull the bar apart. This results in a straighter wrist and elbow position and more tension in your back and chest.
- And finally, arch your lower back slightly, drive through your hips and glutes with feet firmly on the ground shoulder-width apart. It will give you leverage and power as you get ready to push the bar back up.
This setup can help you push the weight up while using a lot more muscles than just your chest. When your weight is more than what’s manageable, your heels will drive into the ground to create a rigid posture that will power you up through your core.
A Guide To Descending The Barbell The Right Way
Did you know proper form extends to returning to the starting position as well? Descending the barbell in the correct manner is critical in building your chest; when done wrong, it can cause problems with your shoulders.
Here’s how you to descend the barbell the right way while bench pressing:
- Straighten your arms as you unrack the weight, then keep your forearms vertical as you lift the bar down horizontally to your mid-chest.
- Make sure to keep your elbows tucked to a 45-degree angle- halfway between your shoulders and ribs- when pressing down to achieve proper elbow placement and position.
- Maintain a little arch in your lower back while keeping your butt firmly planted on the bench.
- Next, hold your breath and push up. That completes one rep.
- Exhale when you come to the top and make sure that your bar lies diagonally from your mid chest to your shoulders.
- Rack the weight back for the second rep, locking your elbows as you do so. Make sure you don’t lose your arch or core tightness while you’re at it.
What Exercises Can Increase Your Bench Press?
Doing a certain amount of reps every day will give your chest muscles definition, but they won’t lead to a bigger chest. For that, you’ll have to push your limits and work out beyond what’s manageable for you. You will also need to incorporate exercises that support and strengthen the muscles required to lift heavier.
These exercises can help you strengthen your bench press and improve your overall strength, control, and power.
1. Barbell Row
Barbell row develops and increases the size of your spinal erectors and lats. These muscles control a lot of your posture and pressing moves, so engaging them will help you maintain stability and power at the starting position of your bench.
Additionally, they will also stabilize the resistance against your body for enhanced results, improve the mechanics of your hip hinges, and provide you with strength carryover for other exercises. More importantly, it bulletproofs your back muscles, which prevent your shoulders from rolling forward when you get up.
Here’s how you can nail it to perfection:
- Load the barbell with the adequate weight.
- Maintain a shoulder-width grip with feet firmly planted shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees and hinge at the hips, so your torso is at a 45-degree angle from the ground. Also, keep your core tight and engaged.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades, then bend your elbows and shoulders, then move your barbell as if you’re performing a rowing motion.
- Make sure to keep your core tight all this time, and only use your upper back to move the weight. Now, lower the bar to the starting position, that’s one rep.
- Repeat for 4 sets, with 10-15 reps in each, twice a week.
Don’t have access to barbells? Do this exercise using dumbbells. It will help you balance out your strength on each side to improve back strength and size.
2. Floor Glute Bridge
Glutes are known to be one of the biggest muscular contributors in the body. They support a rigid posture and play an important role in hip flexibility and movement.
By keeping them engaged when bench pressing, you can build your core muscles, tone your gluteal muscles, and transfer force from your heels all the way up to your system. It will also increase the effectiveness of your workout.
Here’s how you can do it:
- Lie down flat on your back, then pull your feet so your legs are at a 90-degree angle. Keep your arms at the side, with your palms down. This is your starting position.
- Now, press your heels into the ground and push your hips up, as if you’re extending them towards the sky. Make sure to squeeze those glutes and maintain a rigid posture when executing this step.
- Once you’ve extended the hips at the top, hold the position for a couple of seconds and get back to the starting position. That is one rep.
- Do this simple exercise for 4 sets of 15 reps each, 3-4 days a week.
3. Shoulder Press
The shoulder press uses your anterior deltoids (This is the top front portion of your shoulders) and also strengthens your deltoids, triceps, and pecs. These muscles play an important part in building your bench press, so strengthening them can help your case.
By including this exercise in your routine, you'll build strength and stability, enhance your posture and shoulder structure, and strengthen your core.
Here’s how you can perform it:
- Start by holding two dumbbells with adequate weight.
- Keeping your feet firmly on the ground with your legs shoulder-width apart, hold the dumbbells in your hand overhead, up to shoulder height at a 90-degree angle.
- Make sure to keep your palms slightly turned into each other and your elbows should be bent at a 45-degree angle from your torso. Also, your core should be tight. Use only your shoulders to control the movement of the weights.
- Straighten your elbows and shoulders up to press the dumbbell overhead without fully straightening your arms, then return to the starting position and repeat for 4 sets with 8-12 reps each.
4. Dumbbell Pullover
A dumbbell pullover develops and strengthens your form and posture. This game-changer focuses on strengthening your chest (the pectoralis major) and also your lat muscles, targeting two different muscle groups to give you a good upper body workout.
It helps keep the spine stable, increases flexibility in the chest and upper body, and also strengthens nearby muscles.
Here’s how you can execute this exercise:
- Keep your feet firmly planted on the ground and lie down with your shoulder blades resting on the flat bench.
- Lifting your hips up until they’re parallel to the ground, squeeze your glutes while keeping your core tight. Make sure you’re only using your arms to control the movement and weight.
- Pick up a single dumbbell (of the appropriate weight) and hold it directly over your chest using both hands, with your palms facing each other and your elbows slightly bent.
- Slowly lower the dumbbell back behind your head, as if you were making a stretching movement.
- Take a slight pause, but keep your core tight and engaged, then return to the starting position. That’ll be one rep.
- Repeat for 4 sets of 8-12 reps each.
5. Close-grip Pushup
The bench press is not all about muscles in your chest, your triceps play a critical role as well. They allow you to lock out at the elbows, which drives the motion. So if you want to train your triceps to increase their power and target your deltoids and pecs all in one go, close-grip pushups will work in a pinch.
This exercise improves muscle endurance, balance, core stability, mobility and flexibility. It also tones and tightens your arms, shoulders, and back muscles.
Here’s how you can do that:
- Start with a plank position, but with your hands narrower than shoulder-width apart. Your wrist should be underneath your shoulders, with the fingers pointing forward and your elbow facing behind.
- Keep your core tight and engaged.
- Keeping your elbows close to your torso, bend at the elbows and shoulders while slowly lowering your chest towards the ground.
- Press back up by squeezing your chest and triceps while maintaining the spine in a neutral position. That completes 1 rep.
- Continue for 4 sets of 8-12 reps.
6. Dips (Weighted or Normal)
Your bench-pressing abilities will benefit from strengthening your triceps, which is also linked to improving muscle hypertrophy and overall upper body strength. It can help pack more muscle and address any weak/sticking spots.
Dips can be performed both ways: normal and weighted, but if you're doing them weighted, you might want to use a dip belt to add size and definition to your upper body.
Here’s how you can do this multi-joint exercise with the correct form:
- Grab the parallel bars (or rings!) and hoist yourself up.
- Look straight ahead and contract your core, bending your knees (optional) for stability purposes.
- Keeping your elbows at your side, lower yourself down with your arms until your triceps are parallel to the floor.
- Now, explode back up to the starting position, then prepare for another rep.
Looking for a more targeted approach? Add weights to your dips. They’ll help you add muscle mass to your upper body and also improve your strength for exercises like the bench press.
Something to remember:Incorporating a new exercise in your workout regimen? Start with a lower amount of weight than normal, then build resistance as you go. This allows you to focus on perfecting your form, which greatly minimizes the risk of injury that accompanies lifting heavy weights.
Variations To The Bench Press
There are several variations to the bench press that can help you target the chest muscles for growth and strength. Here are two of them:
Incline Bench Press
The incline bench press emphasizes the clavicular pectoralis - a muscle that sits between the collarbone and the top portion of your chest. Because of its tricky position, this chest muscle can be hard to target, which does not really spell well for its growth.
The incline bench press can turn the tide in your favor.
Simply set the bench at an incline between 30-45 degrees, then use a similar technique and form to a flat bench. The higher the incline, the more stress it puts on your shoulders, and the better results it will show on the top part of your pecs.
Decline Bench Press
The decline bench press works the lower pectoral muscles, which can make your pecs look more defined. Here, the bench is set 15-30 degrees on a decline, which makes it less stressful on your back and shoulders than flat bench press.
What’s more? You can also explore other alternatives, such as cable flyers and dips to increase the strength and size of the lower position of the chest muscles.
Just make sure to rest your chest and shoulders the day after your bench-press workout, as it can reduce your risk of injury significantly.
Tips To Build A Bigger Bench Press
In addition to proper form and bench setup, you can also improve and build your bench press and chest size with these tried and tested tips.
1. Make Sure You’re Eating Right
You could do all the exercises you’d like, but unless you pair it with an appropriate nutritional intake, your results won’t show. So, eat enough calories and protein to build strength and size and you’ll be able to press some really big numbers. But make sure you monitor your intake, because eating too many calories will very likely add weight, in all parts of the body.
2. Use Supportive Gear
As you go up in weight for your bench press, make sure to use supportive gear to take your workout to the next level.
Villain Wrist Wraps can offer you better control of your wrist by stabilizing your wrist joints, and can also help improve your grip on the barbell. Elbow wraps and elbow sleeves, on the other hand, support and stabilize your elbow joints, regulate blood circulation, and also offer a performance-enhancing effect.
3. Build The Mind-Muscle Connection
As with everything, you must be mentally prepared before making changes in your regimen. Visualize what you need to do and make up your mind about it, that will build an incredible mind-muscle connection. The simple act of focusing on the target muscles' full range of motion can lead to a greater increase in size through muscle fiber recruitment and activation.
We would advise avoiding using the phone or other distractions, but you may want to pair your workout with some music, as that is known to elevate your mood and increase force production, allowing you to give the exercise your best.
4. Lower The Reps and Increase The Weight
Weightlifting will differ from person to person, but you can gauge your range by starting with 50-80% of your 1RM. Start with 4-6 reps, and increase your weight as you go. One more thing - when moving the bar back up, always use explosive force to move it quickly. It can result in greater power and strength in the long run.
Don’t have a spotter? Bench press in a squat rack. You can adjust the pins to a safe depth - an inch or two above your chest. So, even if you go a level up on your maximum weight capacity, the rack will catch the bar if you fail to hold it mid-rep.
5. Take Your Time
Even if you correct your form and do the right exercise, your bench-pressing abilities will not skyrocket. You have to be patient and take your sweet time with it. If you feel that you can’t take in more weight, don’t push your body to lift more weight as that will make you vulnerable to injuries.
Instead, build your tolerance by adding one extra rep per set and rest between sets to give your body a chance to recover and replenish its energy system. As the shoulders are one of the most injury-prone areas of the body, taking some time off bench pressing can keep your shoulder health in prime.
Remember, small changes lead to big-time smashing gains.
And, It’s A Wrap
Increasing your bench press size can feel challenging, but it doesn't have to be. Just pay attention to your form and bench setup and do exercises that are known to improve chest strength and size, and you’ll be on your way to enjoying incredible results.
Remember, don’t be hard on yourself. Listen to your body and set achievable goals.