by Bret Contreras and Sam Leahey T-Nation
Like it or not, the bench press is the gold standard of upper body strength lifts. Critics frequently try to knock it down, calling it "over rated," "injurious," or the dreaded "not functional," but the bench press isn't going anywhere.
And for good reason. There's no better upper body lift than the bench press. What other upper body lift requires a good amount of leg drive, sufficiently activates the lats, delts, pecs, and tri's, is stable enough to allow for the hoisting of huge loads, and is specific to many sports due to the horizontal pressing nature of the lift?
The answer is, none!
- Powerlifters perform the bench press as one of the "Big 3" lifts in their sport and have developed numerous variations to boost their strength.
- Bodybuilders bench to build the pecs and triceps.
- Bench pressing is so revered by everyday gym rats that the first day of the week has been renamed "International Bench Press Monday."
- The bench press is used to measure upper body strength endurance in the NFL Combine Test, and it's correlated with many different sports performance markers.
History of the Bench Press
At the time when pressing from a lying-down position started cropping up around the lifting communities, standing exercises were the only lifts deemed "manly." Weightlifters scoffed at the pretty-boys who would lie on a bench to "expand their pecs." However, once women started swooning over the broad-chested bodybuilders, the weightlifters soon jumped on the bench-pressing bandwagon.
Interestingly, the bench press has evolved over the years, from floor, bridge, and belly toss variations to the methods used by bodybuilders and powerlifters today.
At first the strict floor press was the most popular method. In 1899, using a barbell with 19-inch discs (plates), George Hackenshmidt, inventor of the barbell hack squat, rolled a barbell over his face (which was turned to the side) and performed a strict floor press with 361 pounds. This stood as a record for 18 years until Joe Nordquest broke it by 2 pounds in 1916.
Around this time, new methods started gaining ground. Lifters started figuring out that strong glutes could help them get the bar from the ground to overhead. They'd lie on the floor and position the bar over their abdomens, then perform an explosive glute bridging movement, thus catapulting the bar overhead and catching it at lockout.
The heaviest weight lifted by way of this method belonged to heavyweight wrestler-strongman Georg Lurich, who "belly-tossed" 443 pounds in 1902. Critics argued that the "belly toss" method was more of a hip-power exercise rather than an upper-body strength exercise, as the triceps were simply being used to support the weight in a locked position.
In a lighter weight class, Arthur Saxon pressed 386 pounds using the same belly toss method, a record that was later bested by Joe Nordquest, who broke it by 2 pounds in 1917. This technique remained popular through much of the 1920s and 1930s.
Here's George Lurich, circa 1885:
Soon it became the norm to set up in a bridge position and perform a "press from back" variation, essentially turning the lift into a modified decline press. The other option was to set up normally and use the hips for a boost through a "bridge press" method. This variation differed from the belly toss and press from back methods in that the bridging motion (hip thrusting) was performed under control and held into position while the pecs and tri's contracted concentrically to finish the lift.
However, when Bill Lilly started setting records by bridging his surprisingly flexible spine and hips all the way to where the bar was locked out, with no separation of the barbell from the abdomen until the lift was completed, people started realizing the absurdity of this method as a demonstration of upper body strength.
Fortunately, Lily's flexible spine and hips sparked changes in acceptable form, although Lilly's 484-pound lift remained unchallenged throughout the 1930s.
The AAU outlawed the bridging maneuver by standardizing the pullover and press in 1939. This technique involved keeping the legs straight, the feet together, and the buttocks on the ground. Nevertheless, many wrestlers would still bridge, arching up onto their heads and performing "wrestler's bridges" while pressing, which required unbelievable neck strength.
Eventually floor pressers realized that small boxes and crates could be used to increase the exercise's range of motion and pectoralis activity, and before long specialized pieces of equipment were being manufactured. Throughout the 1940s, several types of horizontal presses were popular: the strict floor press, the belly toss, the press from back, the bridge press, and the bench press.
By the 1950s bodybuilding was on the rise, and full range of motion was deemed the best method for hypertrophy. At this time the bench press was crowned the king of upper body lifts. As benches grew sturdier, spotters gained competency, form improved, and supportive equipment evolved, bench press numbers have continued to rise.
In the 1950s, Doug Hepburn became the first man to bench 400 and 500 pounds with a pause on the chest. The first 600-pound lift belonged to Pat Casey in the 1960s while the first 700-pound bench is credited to Ted Arcidi in the 1980s. Tim Isaac became the first 800-pound bencher in the late 1990s while Gene Rychlak became the first 900-pound and 1,000-pound bencher in the early 2000s.
The current record belongs to Ryan Kennelly, who benched 1,075 pounds in 2008 with supportive equipment, while Scot Medelson holds the raw record at 715 pounds, which he performed in 2005.
Indeed, the bench press has received its fair share of controversy every step of the way. From day-one, lifters claimed it produced unequal chest to back development and created poor posture. This debate rages on today, with coaches questioning its functional transfer, safety, and optimal technique.
Just as the arched back technique was questioned long ago before actual benches were used, the current arched back technique popular in powerlifting is still frowned upon by many, as is the use of bench shirts.
One thing is certain; lifters will always seek ways to increase their strength on the bench. Before we delve into the various methods used to increase bench press strength, let's examine what the literature has to say about this exercise.
A Review of the Bench Press Literature
Substantial research has been conducted regarding the bench press and its variants. Probably the most important yet overlooked component to bench press performance is the importance of technique. Less experienced lifters differ from more experienced lifters in setup strategies, execution strategies, and overall technique (Madsen & McLaughlin 1984). We recommend that beginners devote considerable time and attention to proper technique and reinforce good technique with every repetition performed.
Researchers have debated the mechanisms behind the "sticky point," but we recommend that the sticky point not be thought of as a "point," but a "region." This region is characterized by a period of lower external force in relation to gravity resulting in a slowing of bar speed and a decrement in momentum.
A typical 1RM-attempt repetition may last around 1.8 seconds. The sticky region starts at around 2-4 tenths of a second into the concentric portion of the repetition and ends at around 8-9 tenths of a second, comprising around 25% of the duration of the shortening motion (Van den Tillaar & Ettema 2010; Elliot et al. 1989).
Two predominant theories exist which explain the reasons for the sticky region. Elliot et al. (1989) found that muscle activity remained unchanged in the prime movers and suggested that the occurrence happens as a result of the termination of the period of increased elastic strain energy from the reversal portion of the movement.
In other words, passive muscle force due to the active stretch of the muscle fibers involved in the prime movers will help get the bar moving during the bench press (think rubber band here).
But the elastic assistance ends very quickly, thereby creating a burden for the active contractile components of the muscle fibers. This makes a lot of sense, but Van den Tillaar & Ettema (2010) found otherwise.
They showed that muscle activity in the prime movers was diminished during the sticky region, and proposed that a neural delay is created between the point where the muscle's leverages diminish and where the brain ramps up muscle activation to complete the movement. We recommend using a variety of strategies to increase your ability to overcome the sticky point, which we'll discuss later in the article.
Any serious lifter understands the importance of mental preparation before a heavy lift. Tod et al. (2005) conducted a very interesting study where they found that "psyching up" led to an 8% increase in force production compared to controls.
They also took a look at force production in a bench press when distracted and found that distracted lifters were unable to produce maximum force. A 12% difference existed between psyched up lifters and distracted lifters. This could amount to a 36-pound difference for a 300-pound bench presser!
We recommend that you save your huge psyche-ups for true max attempts and use them sparingly for optimum performance. Furthermore, we recommend that you concentrate diligently during your lifts and ditch any workout partner who likes to tell jokes or talk during your sets.
Power output during the bench press was shown to increase from 10% to 50% of 1-RM and then decrease from 50% to 90% 1-RM (Stock et al. 2010). This jibes with the findings of Siegal et al. (2002) who found optimal power loads at 40-60% of 1RM. Similarly, Jandacka & Uchytil (2011) found optimal loads at 30-50% of 1RM, while Pearson et al. (2009), found that maximum mean and peak power in the bench press occurred with loads of 53% and 50%, respectively.
Regarding tempo, Pryor et al. (2011) found that fast eccentrics with no rest in the bottom position resulted in the greatest power output gains when compared to slow eccentrics and pauses in the bottom position (something Thibs has been saying for years, which has finally been validated). We recommend using loads of around 50% of 1RM if trying to demonstrate maximum power (remember power equals force x velocity), but when trying to develop maximum power, use a variety of loads ranging from 30-100% of 1RM. For maximum power production, we also recommend incorporating bench throws, which have an optimal power load of 55% of 1RM bench press (Baker et al. 2001) and display higher levels of peak force compared to the bench press (Clark et al. 2008).
Multiple sets have been shown to be superior to single sets for strength gains in the bench press (Rhea et al. 2002).
As far as exercise order is concerned, the bench press is most often performed before exercises such as flies and dumbbell presses due to the increased total body musculature used in the barbell bench press, though all three offer similar levels of pectoral activation (Welsh et al. 2005). Rocha et al. (2007) found similar levels of pec activation between the bench press and pec deck, which lends credence to the findings of Welsh et al.
Placing the bench press first in the workout is a more ideal strategy than placing it at the end of the workout if increased bench press strength is the goal (Simao et al. 2005; Spineti et al. 2010).
As long as volume is matched, it appears that training two times per week versus three times per week or using total body routines versus split routines doesn't make much of a difference in bench press strength gains (Candow & Burke 2007;Arazi & Asadi 2011).
Following a high-intensity workout, women recover their max bench press strength in only four hours whereas men take 48 hours to recover (Judge & Burke 2010).
For maximum bench press strength, we recommend performing a bench press variation twice per week with an emphasis on lower rep ranges and maximal and dynamic effort methods. Women seeking increased bench press strength train the lift more frequently as they don't fatigue to the same degree as men on this exercise.
It's common knowledge amongst lifters that for pec activation, the clavicular head (upper pecs) is recruited more during an incline press, whereas the sternocostal head is recruited better in a flat bench press. Trebs et al. (2010) found the "sweet" spot to be right at 44 degrees for upper pec activity.
Barnett et al. (1995) found that the horizontal bench press activated the most sternocostal pec muscle and triceps fibers, close grip incline press activated the most clavicular pec fibers, and military press activated the most anterior delt fibers.
Lehman (2005) showed that a supinated (reverse) grip led to higher activation in the clavicular (upper) fibers compared to a regular grip and that narrower (close) grips led to higher triceps but lower pec activation than regular grip.
Glass and Armstrong (1997) examined the level of pectoral muscle activation between the decline press and incline press. They found that the decline press activated more lower pec fibers compared to the incline press, while the level of upper pec activation was similar between both lifts.
Clemens and Aaron (1997) found the wide grip bench press worked more prime mover musculature than narrow grip in all the major muscles. For maximum hypertrophy, we recommend performing a variety of grip widths and torso angles to stimulate as many fibers as possible.
Upon analyzing injuries during flat bench press, Green and Comfort (2007) explained how shoulder abduction at 45 degrees with a medium grip offered the safest method of bench press performance for the shoulder joint. For maximum pectoral development, we recommend performing a variety of chest exercises in a variety of rep ranges.
Massey et al. (2004) examined partial range of motion (ROM) training, full ROM training, and a combination of both. They found that none of the three categories resulted in superior strength gains of full ROM bench pressing, yet interestingly the combination group saw the least results.
Regarding machine versus free weight bench pressing, Schick et al. (2010) demonstrated that Smith machine bench pressing activated less shoulder stabilizer and prime mover muscle than free weight bench pressing. Researchers have also identified that a max free-weight bench press is significantly higher than a max Smith-machine bench press (Cotterman et al. 2005).
Research by Ignjatovic (2009) indicates that measures of static strength in the bench press don't correlate well with measures of dynamic bench pressing strength, so isometric outputs shouldn't be used to predict a 1RM.
Duffey and Challis (2011) found that there are considerable lateral forces at play when bench pressing. They used a special bar that allowed for the measurement of vertical and lateral forces and found that the "pulling apart" force exerted on the bar equaled roughly 25% of the upward force. It appears that the muscles involved in pressing the bar upward produce considerable outward forces as well.
This helps explain why individuals can't dumbbell press as much as they can bench press; not only is more stabilization required, but lateral forces aren't allowable in dumbbell pressing as they'd cause the dumbbells to move away from each other, which would result in a failed lift. The fact that triceps EMG is lower during dumbbell pressing compared to barbell pressing lends support to this theory (Saeterbakken et al. 2011). Elitefts has been preaching about spreading the bar apart during the bench for years.
"Forced reps" are quite popular, especially in commercial gyms. Drinkwater et al. (2007) found no significant difference in both strength and power gains between lifters using forced repetitions and those not using forced repetitions. As for taking the training just to failure, Drinkwater et al. (2005) showed that 4 sets of 6 repetitions was superior to 8 sets of 3 repetitions for strength and power gains.
As a set progresses from first to last rep, bar speed slows down and the bar path shifts more to lifting over the shoulders rather than over the lower/middle chest area (Duffey & Challis 2007).
The bench press has an ascending strength curve, meaning that it becomes easier as the concentric range of motion rises. Elliot et al. (1989) found that bench pressing with an 81% 1RM load resulted in 48% of the lift being performed in an acceleration phase and 52% being performed in a deceleration phase. These periods of deceleration are necessary to prevent the bar from jolting the lifter upward at the termination of the lift. For this reason, amongst others, the use of variable resistance such as bands and chains are commonly used.
Bellar et al. (2011) showed that distributing the load with 15% band tension and 85% free weight tension allows for superior strength gains compared to free weights only. Burnham et al. (2010) demonstrated equal 1RM increases between chains of 5% total load and free weights only, similar to the results of McCurdy et al. (2009), who used greater proportions of chain to bar loads.
Using 15% chain load and 60% free weights for a total of 75% of 1RM, Baker and Newton (2009) found the method to be superior in enhancing concentric lifting velocity compared to using a regular 75% 1RM of free weight only. Studies suggest using 40-50% of 1RM with either chains or bands has the greatest effect on power variables (Ghigiarelli 2009). We support the use of chains and bands as the research is clear, but we feel a decent base of strength should be built before traveling down this path.
Ojasto & Hakinen (2009) found that accentuated eccentric loading as in weight-releasers was more productive for power production when using lighter loads. Specifically, they found that concentric force reduced when supramaximal eccentric loads were used before a maximal concentric rep, yet they also found that when heavier eccentric loads were used for submaximal loading, concentric power was maximized. Doan et al. (2002) showed that accentuated eccentric loads through weight-releasers with 105% loads led to subsequent increases in concentric loads of 5-15 lbs. We recommend using weight-releasers as a strategy to increase upper body pressing power while using around 70% of 1RM loads for the eccentric portion and 50% of 1RM for the concentric portion.
Concerning stable versus unstable surfaces, it's been shown that bench pressing on unstable surfaces allows for an increase in activation of total body stabilizer muscles during the movement, and the mode of instability has the greatest effect on which areas of the body recruit more stabilizers (Norwood et al. 2007; Saeterbakken 2011).
For example, the triceps are used less but the biceps are used more during dumbbell pressing compared to barbell pressing (Saeterbakken 2011). The pectoralis major (chest) and shoulders showed similar recruitment patterns in both dumbbell versus barbell pressing (Saeterbakken 2011).
Koshida et al. (2008) demonstrated decreased peak power (10%), velocity (10%), and peak force (6%) when benching on a Swiss ball. Conversely, Goodman et al. (2008) reported no differences in 1RM strength and muscle activation during the traditional flat bench barbell press compared to the barbell Swiss ball bench press. Obviously more research is needed in this area as we doubt that elite bench pressers would be able to bench the same amount on a Swiss ball compared to a flat bench.
Santana et al. (2007) looked at the differences between a standing one-arm cable press and a traditional supine bench press and found that the barbell bench press was better for the pecs, shoulders, and erectors, whereas one-arm cable pressing was better for the lats and internal oblique. They confirmed that whole body stability and coordination were greater and thus more of a limiting factor in the standing version compared to the supine.
All types of stretching protocols for the pecs, shoulders, and triceps have been shown to have no effect on maximum bench press strength (Molacek et al. 2010). As for stretching between sets of bench press, Garcia Lopez et al. (2010) found that absolute velocity decreased when performing static stretching between sets whereas it was unaffected by ballistic stretching.
Researchers compared heavy resistance training only and combined heavy resistance training with ballistic training. The results showed greater significant increases in 1RM strength with the combined protocol compared to just heavy resistance training (Mangine et al. 2008). Wilcox et al. (2006) demonstrated that using two plyometric pushups or two light medicine ball chest passes around 30 seconds before bench press performance enhanced maximum strength acutely.
Methods for Improving Bench Press Strength
This section will discuss bench press technique and showcase methods used for strengthening various ranges of motion and variations.
Your technique will be determined by your anatomy and goals. In comparison to powerlifters, most bodybuilders don't arch their backs as much, they flare their elbows out more, and they lower the bar higher onto their chest.
Pilot research has shown that a guillotine press with 225 pounds of resistance activates more pec musculature than a 275 pound powerlifting-style bench press. This indicates that bodybuilders know what they're talking about when it comes to muscle activation, but it's also very important to consider joint health. While there's no doubt that the guillotine press is superior for pectoral activation, it's also more dangerous for the shoulder joint.
Physiological responses to different technique options can vary. For example, some lifters can guillotine press their entire careers and never suffer any consequences. However, other lifters impinge their shoulders by simply glancing at someone performing a guillotine press.
At any rate, for higher pec activation you may choose to flare the elbows outward and lower the bar higher up on the chest, but for maximum shoulder joint safety, using a 45 degree shoulder angle is the safest bet.
Another strategy for increasing pectoral involvement and decreasing triceps' involvement is to not "pull the bar down to your chest" by "spreading the bar apart." Doing this will allow the pecs to contribute more to the bar deceleration than if you used your triceps on the way down.
If you simply want to decrease the force contribution from the lower body and force the upper body muscle to do the work, then eliminate the leg drive during the ascent by placing your feet flat on the ground under your knees. Be sure not to drive into the ground during the press and concentrate on using only upper body force.
Varying the grip will also shift muscular contributions during the bench press. A closer grip would use the arms and shoulders more while the wider variation receives a greater contribution of force from the pectorals. If you'd like a bit more contribution from the triceps, simply keep your elbows tucked in throughout the movement.
In the end, these strategies are not absolutes. Some lifters may not get as much of a pronounced change as others by altering their bench press technique. The reason being is that lifters present varying levels of mobility, stability, weak points, and anthropometries. Some might experience a much different pressing feeling by using a different technique while others only feeling a slight change.
If interested in maximum strength, we recommend the following:
- Don't ignore leg drive, experiment to find the best foot position for you, create a stable base, get the quads tight, and force the knees out to activate the glutes.
- Set up onto the upper back and get a big lower back arch while "screwing" your scapulae down into the bench. Don't lose this position during the lift off and settle the bar overhead before lowering to your chest.
- Experiment to find the best grip width for you, grip the bar as hard as possible while wrapping the bar tight with your thumb, and maintaining a neutral wrist position, and spread the bar apart throughout the lift.
- Hold a huge breath and pull the bar down with the lats, initiate the press with the lats and focus on pushing your body away from the bench. Experiment with different bar paths to find the best path for you, release your breath only after you're passed the sticky region.
- Don't bounce the bar off your chest or raise your butt off the bench during the lift.
Raw powerlifters should spend a significantly larger proportion of time focusing on bottom range bench press strength and using full range repetitions, whereas equipped powerlifters should dedicate more time building top-end strength since their bench shirts will provide tremendous elastic assistance at the bottom of the lift.
Most Important – the Standard Bench Press
If all you ever did was a standard bench press, you'd be okay. But the variations below will get you from point A to point B quicker if you train correctly.
Bottom Range Strength
In this video we showcase three different methods to increase your bottom range bench press strength:
- Pin press from bottom range
- Bottom range yielding iso-hold
- Bottom range overcoming iso-hold
Mid Range Strength
In this video we showcase four different methods to increase your mid range bench press strength:
- Mid range yielding iso-hold
- Mid range overcoming iso-hold
- Dead-stop floor press
- Pin press from mid range
In this video we showcase eight different methods to increase your top range bench press strength:
- Floor press
- Board press (1-4)
- Pin press from top range
- Top range yielding isohold
- Top range overcoming isohold
- Reverse band
- Bench plus chains (Overloaded at top)
- Bench plus bands (Overloaded at top)
In this video we show you two different ways to overload the eccentric/negative/lowering phase:
- Negative accentuated
- Weight releasers
In this video we provide five methods for improving stability in a bench press:
- Chain stability press
- Kettlebell stability press
- Dumbbell press
- Alternating dumbbell press
- One-arm dumbbell press
Weak Links and Variety
This video details several different variations that can and should be employed during various phases throughout the year:
- Speed bench
- Speed bench with chains
- Speed bench with bands
- Close grip bench press
- Wide grip bench press
- High incline press
- Mid incline press
- Low incline press
- Decline press
- Narrow neutral grip bar
- Wide neutral grip bar
- Thick bar
Many bodybuilders train the bench press once per week during their chest day with large amounts of volume. Many powerlifters train the bench press movement twice per week -- once with maximal loads, and once with maximum power outputs.
This is a good place to start, but all bodybuilders and powerlifters should experiment with form, variations, frequency, volume, and intensity to figure out what works best for them.
Generally, most lifters can handle two bench sessions per week. For hypertrophy purposes, perhaps one session per week focusing on the bench press and another focusing on the close-grip incline press is ideal. For maximum strength, perhaps one session per week focusing on the bench press and another focusing on the board press is ideal.
For hypertrophy purposes, we recommend a variety of rep ranges ranging from 3 x 10 to 10 x 3, ascending pyramids to descending pyramids, cluster sets to drop sets.
For max strength, we recommend staying under 5 reps and getting comfortable performing maximum singles. It's critical that you use good form to stay healthy over the long run, rotate variations to prevent pattern-overload and habituation, and consistently add load to the bar every year.
As far as the myriad of methods and variations shown in this article, don't be a jackass and try to do everything at once. The guy who ignores all the crazy methods and variations and focuses on straight sets of the standard bench press is usually much stronger than the douchebag who tries to perform every variation and method in existence. Every few weeks pick a new focus, and then rotate to a different focus.
Attention should be dedicated toward strengthening the shoulder external rotators and scapula retractors for structural balance. Exercises such as L-flies, band no-moneys, cable external rotation, face pulls, rear delt raises with scapular retraction, one arm rows, seated rows, one arm cable rows, chest supported rows, and inverted rows are very important to prevent negative postural adaptations and prevent future shoulder injuries.
Furthermore, push ups and overhead pressing and pulling help keep the scapulae working properly, which is vital long-term benching prowess, so don't ignore them, either.
If you're trying to maximize the functional transfer of your bench press and improve your athleticism, we recommend supplementing your existing program with JC Band presses, which will strengthen the hips and core to allow for more carryover, along with explosive work such as med-ball chest passes and plyo pushups, which will increase explosive power and reactive strength.
Of course having strong legs and hips through squatting, deadlifting, hip thrusting, and sled work will also go a long way in increasing your horizontal pushing power and will ensure that your upper body pressing transfer isn't limited by weaknesses and energy leaks down the kinetic chain.
We hope you enjoyed the history lesson, the literature review, and the videos. Now get to it!