By Andrew Levings
‘The Secret’: Anyone – and I mean any male of normal health – can bench press 140kg with enough time, effort and application.
In this post we look at how YOU can improve YOUR bench press significantly. Want to bench more? Then read on…
“How much do you bench?”
This is the most frequent question any strength athlete will be asked on a consistent basis. To the average gym goer, there is very little meaning in how much you can squat or deadlift.
Why? There are many reasons for this and I will list a few key ones here (in no particular order).
Please note, once again, I am talking about the barbell bench press here, and from the perspective of someone with a strength and conditioning background.
1. It’s actually a brilliant compound movement
The bench press is actually a fantastic whole body lift. Yes, you read right, the bench press, performed in a powerlifting style will actually engage the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the core and the grip. This is in addition to the more usual muscles gym goers associate with the bench press: namely the chest.
In actuality, a powerlifting-style bench press (which is a totally different lift to a bodybuilding-style bench press) will engage the entire upper torso; not limited to the pectoral major, the triceps, the biceps and branchialis, the deltoid (particular the front deltoid), the lattisimus dorsi (lats), the rhomboids and traps. Even calves can get some stimulation from the bench press dependant on your technique (more on that later).
Really guys don’t underestimate the bench press, there is a reason it is included in the three powerlifts (along with squat and deadlift), and a reason why guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger swore by it for pectoral development (incidentally, the bench press and heavy wide flyes from all angles were the bread and butter of Arnold’s chest routine; check out the Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding which is a must have, by the way).
2. The Bench Press is FUN!
The bench press can be trained in a group, switching between training partners and even other gym trainers. Why? Because unlike a dumbbell bench press, it is easy to add plates on/off and spot each other.
“Enjoy your training and you will get better results”- a simple statement, too obvious maybe, but a point often missed.
3. It is a universal comparison point for upper body strength
You show me any major sports team and they will measure and test the bench press for the team members. This includes football, rugby, MMA, even Olympic rowing and Olympic judo. The NFL combine famously test 225lb (102.5k circa) for reps. A little known fact: the MMA star, WWE star and former NCAA Division I Wrestler (the top university league in the US) Brock Lesnar reportedly holds one of the highest results in this test, with c.40 clean judged presses!
The upshot: “You must love the bench press and perform it to be strong”
A controversial point, maybe, especially for those from an Olympic lifting background, but a point I agree with. Even some Olympic lifters performed narrow grip bench press to aid in overhead pressing (when the clean and press was included; not to be confused with a clean and jerk – I’m going back to the 70s and before here!).
The bench press is the most technical out of the three powerlifts, in my opinion; there are as many different techniques as there are lifters; as with everything: no-one performs the press in the exact same way.
Why is this? Because every human has different biomechanics (namely for the bench press arm length, upper body genetics such as torso width and thickness and breadth of chest/rib cage).
Flexibility also comes into the bench press; this may have been noted by some of you guys and girls when watching ‘extreme’ arches which are actually a real skill in themselves; although I can sympathise with people who disagree with it (especially when training the bench press for upper body strength for sport, sports fitness or general strength).
As with everything technique wise, it is hard to be prescriptive without seeing someone in person, but here are a few basic tips to start you on your journey to the big 140k/three 20k plate bench).
- The straight line motion is usually best. What does this mean in practical terms? It means that you should start the bench press (i.e. where you hold the bar prior to the descent) where you end up once the press is completed. This again comes down to Newton’s laws, and holds true in many sports; an example (from outside of powerlifting), the Nak Muay (thai boxers) prefer straight punches and strikes down the centre line of the body. Why? Because a straight punch will always beat a wide swing (or haymaker): it is more direct and faster. This applies to the bench press too.
- Do NOT bounce the bench press. This doesn’t require further explanation!
- Grip the bar TIGHT. You often hear people saying ‘pull the bar apart to engage the triceps’. Personally, I found this a difficult concept to get my head around. However, it all made sense when one of the greatest bench pressers from the UK ever (in my opinion – a true gent named Mick King who pressed 230kg two reps raw paused at over 50 years old; check out YouTube if you want to see brutal, old fashioned pressing power), said to me “Andy, grip the bar real tight”. This does actually work very well; not only is it a good idea from a safety perspective, it also does truly engage the triceps more.
- Tuck your elbows. Again, a hard concept to explain over written text, but you want your arms to be somewhere near 45 degrees to your torso when bench pressing. Again, this is totally different to a bodybuilding style press which is done with flared arms to isolate the pecs more).
The ‘no routine, routine’ (It’s not a paradox)
I am not a fan of strict rigid routines such as ’12 week to a bigger bench press’. Why? Because it is misleading. It may take you one year to press 140kg; it may be a lifetime goal of a multi-year training plan. Think long term with an emphasis on micro- or mini-goals; I find this most effective.
Train your triceps
Triceps really are a key to a big bench press. If you show me anyone who presses 400lb/182.5kg or more, then I will show you someone with strong triceps. You can’t bench huge weight with a big chest alone.
A few good tricep exercises (there are loads and the information is all freely available).
Close Grip Bench
Louie Simmons of Westside fame said anything that if you increase your narrow grip bench, your regular bench will go up, guaranteed. He even went further and by extrapolation said that anything that increases your narrow or close grip bench will increase your bench ispo facto.
NB: I consider shoulder width the best grip for narrow or close benches, as anything closer puts enormous pressure on the wrists and hasn’t been shown to be any more effective on the EMS (see Tudor Bompa) than the shoulder width press.
Extensions, Extensions, then some more Extensions
Variety is key here. Why? Because it’s more fun and also more effective.
A few variations;
- Incline skulls/extensions, can be done with a pause (my personal favourite).
- Extensions off the floor with a dead stop (again unusual but brutally effective).
- Any sort of extension with a dumbbell.
- Gain weight. The bench press is the lift I find most influenced by BW. I drop weight, my bench drops, I gain weight, my bench increases. Of course, this is over-simplified but you get the point.
- Press the weight FAST. Again, as with the DL the same principles apply- F=MxA (force= mass x acceleration). So we need to either increase the mass or the speed. Speed is often easier, especially if you don’t press fast usually (probably down to your makeup of fast/slow twitch fibers).
- Train your lats – HARD. The lats are essential for lowering and controlling the eccentric.
- Frequency. You need to be pressing 2 times a week minimum. Why? Because your overall workload for bench press per week will be greater. The simple fact: ‘the more you do something, the better you get at it’
Bench often, bench hard, do your accessory work and be consistent, be patient, and I guarantee you are capable of the sought after 140kg / 3 x 20kg plates bench press.