How to bench press like a bodybuilder
This is an overview on how to bench press as a bodybuilder for beginners based on my experience. I am not the best bench presser in the world, only in my local gym with a personal record of 150 kilograms at 82kg bodyweight. Utilizing German Volume Training i managed to increase my chest by 2 inches in a month. If you are impatient directly skip to the subheading "How to bench press like a bodybuilder.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kai Greene, Jean Claude van Damme and Sylvester Stallone have big chests. At least a bigger chest than most other men around. Even when you go to your local gym there will be one alpha who has an impressive physique and you might scratch your head in disbelief pointing to the good old steroids as the explanation. In this internet age, there seems to be a neverending supply of muscle bros flexing at the beach and whenever they get a chance. But how do you get that big ? What kind of training do you do ? Which equipment do you use ? How to grip the bar ? All of this is hard to wrap your head around when you are starting out.
There are many exercises to choose from like the incline bench press, decline bench press, flies, dumbbell work in multiple variations, push ups, pull ups, dips and many others. The list is tiringly long and there is more advice on the internet. Most of it is conflicting. With a 30 day plan here and "increase your bench instantly" there you can quickly become confused, especially if you did not test a lot of variations in the gym yourself. In no time you will find a thread of comments in which people argue one way or another, still to be left with no answer backed by data. The first thing that helps to make sense of all this information is to know your goal.
Know your goal and cut through the bullshit
The fact that you found this article with the title "how to bench press like a bodybuilder" is already a good start. Hopefully, you decided that your main goal is to gain muscle and everything else in the gym is second to that. Once you get your priorities straight it becomes a lot easier to pick the rep scheme, exercises, diet and plan that is most beneficial and focused for reaching your personal goal. The more muddled and conflicting your goal set, the more prone you are to become a victim of bullshit like "Get shredded and become strong like the hulk in 30 days without changing your diet". There are three main goals when you work out:
As you have found this article and decided to read up to this point we will stick with the goal set of appearance and also say that your goal is to look like one of the models on the cover of men's health or muscle and fitness.
The bench press in general
The bench press is one of the most iconic exercises in the gym you can do. It can be defined as
"A bodybuilding and weightlifting exercise in which a lifter lies on a bench with the feet on the floor and raises a weight with both arms."
In fact, it is so much more iconic than other exercises that it just seems to find its way into more Hollywood movies than any other weightlifting exercise:
Sean Maguire played by Robin Williams finds a chink in Will Hunting's armor by revealing that he can bench more than him. Will loses no time to retaliate in a different field to avoid showing any weakness.
Bruce Willis deleted scene from Unbreakable. In the final cut of the movie, he is with his son in the basement uncovering his new strengths as a superhero maxing out on his bench press.
The incline bench press takes center stage in the weight room scenes of "Pain and Gain", a movie starring Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson
With this little detour into the movie world the following factors are crucial for deciding on how to bench press:
- Number of repetitions & sets
- Rest between sets
- Grip width
- Range of motion
- Execution of the lift
- Arch of your back & Setup
- Equipment to use for bench pressing
If you want tobench press like a bodybuilder your goal is to maximize the effect the bench press has on your muscle growth. For each of the factors above the choice becomes easier on what to do, once you have prioritized this goal. If you want to improve performance and appearance at the same time, it will be much harder for you to make your choices for each of the influencing factors.
How to bench press like a bodybuilder
You know now which parts of the bench press are important to take care of to bench like a pro. Here is how you make sure that each and every minute spent on the bench press is optimized for growth:
The number of repetitions and sets varies on the source between 5 - 15 to 8 - 12 or even up to twenty repetitions per set. For bodybuilding purposes, you want to work the lower tissues and slow-twitching fibers of your muscles. That is usually achieved by going far beyond what most cookie cutter programs you will find on the internet prescribe. One program that works within these ranges is German Volume Training. Just that you do not have to think too much aim for 10+ repetitions per set. For the repetitions per workout aim to get somewhere around 50+ repetitions in. German Volume training calls for 10x10. If you use 12 repetitions work with 5 - 8 sets depending on the day and when the pump sets in.
Repetitions should be 10+ and number of sets should be 5 to 10
Load is another factor to consider for getting the most bang for the buck for your time. In bodybuilding, the emphasis is not on how much weight you can actually move on the bar, but more on how much pump you can get out of each repetition. Therefore you need to pick the load accordingly so that you are in full control of each single repetition which you do. For most poeple, this will be somewhere between 50% - 60% of their one repetition maximum. Start slowly with lower weights and work your way up. Control and form is your primary goal.
Load should be 50% to 60% of your one repetition maximum
Rest between sets is shorter than it would be for strength training as the work at lower weights is not as strenuous on the nervous system. Try to keep your rest in the range of 1 - 3 minutes between sets to optimize for muscle gains. If you have trouble to establish rest and you do not have a watch around to time it count from 20 to 80. This is roughly a minute.
Rest between sets should be 1 - 3 minutes
Grip width is usually just outside shoulder width on the barbell. You can keep it natural. Avoid going too wide or too narrow in the beginning until you have gained experience and know exactly why you use these movements. A very narrow or wide grip can lead to "birthmarks" on your pecs if you overstretch them and it is not needed for beginners. In case you struggle to find the width a good standard to use is a thumbs length away from the outer knurl. Use the picture below for orientation. If you grip the bar at the outer knurl (single Olympic knurl) it is probably too wide. If you grip it directly at the beginning of the knurl it will probably be too narrow.
Grip width should be a thumb's length from the outer knurling
Range of motion is again a highly debated topic.The first thing to notice is the angle of the elbows in relation to your body. For bodybuilding have the angle wider and closer to 90 degrees, without being too uncomfortable, than to 45 degrees. Start at the highest point of the lift and go to the lowest position to touch your chest. Again, if you want to make it more challenging, stop just before a full lockout and just before the barbell touches your chest. If yu master the bench press like this you are truly in full control of the motion to train like a bodybuilder. Avoid selling yourself short by only doing parts of the movement.
Use full range of motion for the bench press and its variations
Execution of the lift is slow and controlled in the bodybuilding style. Your aim is to milk every single repetition for the maximum to have longer time under tension. As you already know from the points before you will work at relatively low load and therefore be able to fully focus on proper execution of the movement. Here is a great tip on tempo for you to try out
4 – Take 4 seconds to lower the bar
1 – Take 1 second to pause at the bottom
X – Lift the bar as explosively as possible
1 – Pause and squeeze the muscle for 1 second before starting the next rep
Vary with paused and touch and go bench presses to stimulate more growth. A touch and go bench press utilizes the momentum of the bar during the lift while a paused bench press lets the movement stop completely at the lowest point before initiating the upward push. If you want to see all of the basics of the execution have a look at Layne Norton's guide to the bench press.
Arch of the back and setup is basically up to you as the main effects will be on the load, repetitions you do and how you decide to execute them. Usually, the arch for bodybuilders is minimal to keep the spine neutral and not as pronounced as with powerlifters whose main goal is to shorten the path the bar has to travel. As this is not the main goal for bodybuilders and a longer range of motion means a higher impact on your muscle growth, you only want to arch as much as you need to be healthy and stable during the movement. Plant your feet where it is comfortable to reach this position and go ahead.
The equipment to use for the bench press is depending on what you can get your hands on in your local gym. Utilizing the bench press for bodybuilding the barbell is actually not a recommended item. Use dumbbells, incline & decline bench presses to attack the chest from as many angles as you possibly can. Because you will do many repetitions with high focus you have a greater opportunity to do so as when optimizing your training for strength mainly.
To bench press like a bodybuilder you take your time with low loads and many repetitions with little rest between sets. It is more about attacking the tissue from all angles and taking your time with rather than minimizing the barpath and maximizing the weight you move. Dumbbells are your go-to option when pumping up, while the barbell plays a minor role.
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