Almost everyone in the gym wants to improve their bench press results. And yet, hardly anyone has any idea how to get there. Fundamentals like optimal bench press form and programming generally not discussed.
Most bench press programs have you benching for five sets of five, either once a week or three times per two weeks. That’s perfect for beginners. For people with at least a couple of years of training under their belt? Not so much. Here’s how to build a stronger bench press and keep putting weight on the bar once you’re past the newbie phase and ready to start incorporating advanced training techniques into your bench press program.
Focus on Your Bench Press Form
Other than sticking to the aforementioned beginner programs, the most common mistake people make when training for strength with a specific movement is spending too much time on accessory work while underemphasizing the movement being trained. To put it bluntly: you build a stronger bench press by practicing your bench press.
Many people only bench once a week. This is a major mistake, especially once you’re past the novice stage of muscular development. You can build more strength and muscle mass by training a muscle more often, and more strength with a given movement by training that movement more often.
For this program, you’ll be bench pressing twice a week. Accessory work will be limited to once a week, and will be performed at lower intensities—it’s as much for active recovery as anything else.
Use Accommodating Resistance with Your Bench Press
You probably haven’t heard of accommodating resistance, but you may have seen someone doing it at the gym. It’s a training technique where you attach resistance bands to the barbell, using the resistance from the bands to replace some of the weight from the barbell plates.
The reason this works is because it matches the resistance curve of the exercise to your muscles’ strength curve, evening out the difficulty of the exercise. Normally, the bottom portion of the bench press is more difficult than the top, creating a sticking point at the bottom that forces you to either shorten your range of motion or end the set once you get fatigued.
Because resistance bands provide more resistance the higher you raise the weight, they fix this issue, allowing you to push each set a little bit further. In advanced trainees, the use of accommodating resistance can double the rate of bench press strength improvement.
For the bench press, you should be replacing 25–40 percent of the total weight with band resistance. Make sure you buy thin fit loop bands like the WODFitters pull-up assistance bands, and you may need to double-wrap them around the bench to keep them from going slack at the bottom of the movement. If you bench between 125 and 205 pounds, you’ll want two of the red bands; double-wrapped, they’ll provide about 15 pounds each of resistance at the bottom of the bench press and 25–30 at the top—use that top value to calculate how much weight to replace with band resistance.
If you bench between 205 and 255 pounds, use the red bands but triple-wrap them. If you bench more than that, use a pair of the black bands, double-wrapped.
Do Cluster Sets
A cluster set is simply a set divided into several mini-sets, with short intra-set rests in between. So for instance, you might do two reps, re-rack the barbell, rest 10 seconds, unrack it and do two more reps, re-rack and rest 10 more seconds, then bang out two more reps before re-racking it. That would be one cluster set of three mini-sets. After that you’d rest several minutes, as normal.
The advantage of cluster sets is that they allow you to do more reps than normal with a given weight. In the above example, you would have done six reps, but with the extra intra-set rests, you could have used a weight that’s around your usual maximum for three or four reps.
Research shows that cluster sets allow you to build more strength and power than traditional straight sets, while also gaining at least as much muscle mass. This article explains cluster sets in more detail. For this program, you’ll be performing all of your bench press working sets as cluster sets.
Start Taking Videos
Once every week or two, have a friend take videos of you training so that you can assess your bench press form. To get the optimal angle, your friend should stand directly to your side, kneeling down to put the camera at a height just above your chest without angling it downward. The camera should be held landscape-style to capture your whole body, including your feet.
A full guide to bench press form is beyond the scope of this article, but look for the following cues:
- You should be far enough up the bench that the bar is only going an inch or two in front of the pins on each rep.
- The bar should travel straight up and down, without wobbling.
- Tuck your shoulders in.
- Elbows should be directly below your wrists. Your hands should not tilt back—the bar should rest on the heel of your hand, not mid-palm.
- Your back should be arched, with your butt and shoulder blades staying in contact with the bench.
- Use your leg drive to add power while keeping yourself stuck to the bench.
Your Eight-Week Bench Press Program
You’ll be training your bench press on Monday and Friday, with a small number of accessory lifts at low intensity on Wednesday. Push yourself hard on Monday and Friday, but take it easy on Wednesday so you’re recovered by Friday. Make good bench press form a goal in all workouts.
Note that none of these are full workouts; you can insert them into existing workouts, but they should always be done at the beginning of your workout so that you benefit from being fresh for them. Maintaining good bench press form when fatigued takes concentration.
Note that for the bench press, weights are expressed as a percentage of your one-rep maximum, which you’ll be testing every Monday.
A) Test bench press one-rep max
B1) Bench press with accommodating resistance, five cluster sets of 2-2-1 at 90–93 percent of 1RM
B2) Plyometric push-ups, two sets of five
Rest at least five minutes between testing your one-rep max and starting your working sets, and three to five minutes between working sets. Rest 10–20 seconds between the mini-sets within a cluster set. Perform the sets of plyometric pushups immediately after the last two sets of the bench press.
Always have a spotter when testing your one-rep max. This would also be an ideal day to video your bench press technique and study your bench press form.
A1) Dumbbell bench press, three sets of eight
A2) Dumbbell or barbell bent-over row, three sets of eight
B1) Dumbbell chest flies, two sets of 10
B2) Zottman curls, two sets of 12–15
B3) Dumbbell triceps extension, two sets of 10–15 per arm
Rest one to two minutes between sets. For the dumbbell press, flies and triceps extensions, stop two or three reps short of failure.
A1) Bench press with accommodating resistance, five cluster sets of 3-3-2 at 85–87 percent of 1RM
A2) Plyometric pushups, two sets of five
Rest at least minutes between testing your one-rep max and starting your working sets, and three to five minutes between working sets. Rest 10–20 seconds between the mini-sets within a cluster set. Perform the set of plyometric pushups immediately after the last two sets of the bench press.
And there you have it. By benching more often, getting serious about your technique, and incorporating a couple of more advanced training techniques, even an advanced trainee can put another 30–50 pounds on the bar over the next few months.