How to increase your bench press
Basic formula is life a healthy life style, bench press, have a goal, have a plan, use incremental overload, stick to the plan and do not injure yourself. Keep doing this for a couple of months or even years and then you will have increased your bench press. Good things are always simple and a bit more detail follows for the interested.
Some reference points so that you know who is providing this information to you and as a refresher for regular readers of my blog.
I am a fitness enthusiast who just broke the magic barrier to 30 years and a 300 pound bench press with two children and who is engaged. I have a normal job, have no formal training as a personal trainer / fitness coach or gym instructor and love my life.
In my teenage years I was part of a performance focused judo training group in Germany which produced one Bronze medallist at the Sydney Olympics and I fought semi-professionally for different clubs.
Part of that training was strength training and when I got out of my routine when I left home to study I fell into a slump which continued until mid of 2014. I was overweight, out of shape and unhealthy.
Since then I have run three marathons and currently hold the Bench press record of my local gym at 140kg at 83kg bodyweight.
All in all nothing to formal or overly impressive but I would say a bit above average citizen in terms of fitness. This is a background check for you who is providing some advice here and whether you’ll think it is trustworthy or not based on this. Above video shows how I increased my bench from a 120kg to 140kg in roughly half a year.
Assess the status quo
First thing to do is to have an honest self-assessment of where your bench press is currently at and also how your overall fitness level is.
- Did you use to do a lot of sprints without any strength work in your teenage years?
- Did you already lift at a young age?
- Do you life a healthy lifestyle?
- Do you get enough sleep? ( 7 Hours a day in case you are wondering)
- How old are you?
- How much time do you have to train?
- What facilities do you have to train?
- How much budget can you spend on achieving your goals
- Which medical conditions could be of advantage / disadvantage to increase your bench press
Generally speaking the younger, healthier, more active you are or have been and the more time and resources you have to achieve your goal the quicker you can expect to achieve it and the more aggressive you can be on the road to success.
Have a goal
Formulate a goal for your bench press and by when you want to achieve it. Use the smart rule to formulate your goal which is
- Time bound
“I want to improve my bench press”
“I want to increase my bench press by 60pounds /30 kilograms within the next half a year using the Stronglifts 5x5. To achieve this I will train three times a week to achieve an average increase of 5kg /10pounds on my bench press one repetition maximum a month.”
Specific in this context means that you have a clear number / goal to strive towards which is relevant to you and also only applies to you.
Measurable means that you set milestones and track yourself against the progress towards that goal to see whether what you are doing is working or not.
Attainable is the idea of having a goal which from this world and can be achieved in the here and now. An unattainable goal would to be to beat Jesus on the bench press in heaven, just as an example (also this sounds like a lot of fun to try once you made it into this elite club).
Realistic ties into your status quo and the gap between the now and the goal you have expressed. If you are already fairly strong and know how to do flat bench press properly it is more realistic that you will achieve a one repetition maximum of 100kg on this exercise in a month than if you do not know how to do a bench press, have arms like matchsticks and want to bench 100kg tomorrow this might work. The latter approach still has a high likelihood to turn out as a fail, therefore it is pretty unrealistic. This also ties into staying motivated which is a vital component I will discuss too.
Set a timeframe for the goal which is also realistic so that you have a schedule. Only by this you will be enabled to track whether what you are doing is on track or of track. If we all had unlimited time in this world this would not matter, however that is not the case, as one day you will die. For mortals, time matters, therefore bind your goals towards a time frame to make them realistic and attainable and hold yourself accountable against them.
Have a plan
Once you have assessed the status quo and formulated a goal break this goal down into smaller chunks and think about which lifting program gives you these little chunks the quickest and most realistically based on your abilities.
The less experienced of a lifter you are and the younger you are the more likely it will become that each of these steps against time becomes bigger or in short, that you will get stronger faster on any given program.
Based on my research (which has not been conducted based on academical standards, so please don’t even start this troll thread) all programs which are out there work as long as you do them. Nobody ever grew muscle or got stronger by reading or looking at YouTube videos only / mostly. You actually have to lift to get stronger.
If you spent more time picking and optimising your program than benching, you will not increase your bench press. You might get a Doctor’s degree in biomechanics (which is also neat but this is not why you searched for this article), but you will not get stronger.
Therefore search for a plan which suits your schedule, availability of training utilises and lifestyle and go with it. The more specific this program will be to increasing a one repetition bench press maximum (which reads the more benching the better for increasing your bench press), the more likely it will be that you achieve desired result. Keep in mind that a program focused on bench pressing only will get you there, the trade-off will be that some people might think that you look like a freak because will most likely be over trained compared to the rest of your body. If you don’t mind this, good for you, if you do, look for a balanced program which also incorporates other movements with the trade-off that your bench will not increase as fast as on a different program which has more focus.
Use incremental overload & volume
What worked for me was to use incremental overload which means increasing the load on the bench press session by session in small increments to overload the muscle and make it adapt to the new stress (reads get stronger to not be killed by a barbell dropped on head à think primal instinct here).
Increasing in increments gets you the best of two worlds. It is relatively safe as you do not risk to shock the muscle or load your body to breaking point (be it crushed bones, ripped tendons or teared muscles) while still getting stronger and progressing towards your magic number.
Incremental overload also helps you to keep track whether you are hitting a wall or not. If you cannot lift more or do less repetitions with the same weight, you are not getting stringer anymore and you maybe want to adjust something.
Also think of your status quo. If you make the gap between your currently fitness level and the stress you put your body under too big, you willingly choose to put yourself under unnecessary risk. In this instance your body is like a car. If you want to drive on treacherous roads in icy conditions better make sure that you have a land rover with chains on the wheels. If your body is more like a fiat cinquecento and you still decide to drive under these conditions, don’t be upset when you wind up injured.
What holds true for your load (the weight on the barbell) also holds true for your volume (the amount of repetitions you do with that weight). Depending on the program you will pick also increase the number of repetitions gradually and not exponentially to keep the balance of gains vs. risk injuries tipped in your favour.
How much load and how many repetitions should I use?
The programs which worked best for me were the ones that work with sets of 1 – 5 repetitions in the 70% - 95% range of my personal one repetition maximum. This seems also to be the case when you browse through various fitness articles, strength programmes by professional weightlifters (Louie Simmons, Mehdi from Stronglifts 5x5, Ed Coan several times world champion powerlifter Greg Everett to name a few examples) and buy some books on the topic (which I did).
If your aim is to increase your bench this is the world you’ll most likely live in. Higher repetitions per set at lower load usually result in a more balanced result between strength and muscle gains. Lower repetitions at higher loads usually seem to stimulate development of the nervous system more and muscle growth less.
Avoid injuries and take precautions
This is super important and usually seems to be underestimated from my general impression. Injuries are the worst thing that can possibly happen to you (the fact that I have to point that out is already a bit weird). Foolishness and greed are your best advisors to get there.
Yes you might push yourself to breaking point to get that one repetition maximum or that one more rep in, however this is not smart if you are not a professional bodybuilder or powerlifter and at least get a trophy in return for it or a nice pay check.
If you get injured this will throw you back 1 – 6 month in your training. Just do the numbers how strong you will be in six months from now if you keep training (if you do it right the weight you take a risk of injuring yourself for now will be laughable by then) or blow that pec right here, right now. If you are o.k. at math, you will see how foolish this is.
Don’t get me wrong, make yourself feel a bit uncomfortable, because otherwise you will not get stronger. It is important to know though where to draw a line in the sand and walk away. The longer you train the better you will get at knowing where your walk away point is.
Even strong advocates of overtraining like CT Fletcher have their sessions structured in a way that the most load is moved at the beginning and not at the end of the session.
More benching = Increased bench press
With all the precautions mentioned and based on your abilities, the more frequent you hit the gym to bench, the more your bench press will increase the quicker. It is as simple as that.
Stick to your plan
Before even considering changing your plan look at everything else in your life first before changing. If you picked a program that meets the criteria provided in this post it is very likely that you
- Don’t eat enough
- Have not enough sleep
- Cheat on your workouts
- Don’t pay attention to the prescribed loads
- Don’t take the necessary rest between sets
- Don’t hit the gym often enough
- Have too much stress in other parts of your life which distract you
- Are not focused enough on the task at hand in the gym
- You have picked a program which is too advanced for you / not challenging enough for you
Look at all these factors before switching plan and blaming the program for your lack of commitment, focus & determination.
When to switch plans
- Have checked everything I mentioned before
- Did the program longer than three months
- Do not get stronger anymore
- Get really, really, really bored with the program for more than a month without the you going anywhere or even declining and making you want to quit lifting.
Then switch. (and only reluctantly do so)
Use static & explosive Accessory work
This is a side show, but for me explosive and static exercises like planks and clap push ups helped my progression on the bench press. Keep in mind that this is the Interval, not the main act. Main act is flat bench press and any other dumbbell bench presses.
Set yourself up for success
Pick a program and lift in a way that makes you feel powerful and successful while progressing. If you pick a program that constantly makes you feel like a loser and is set up to make you fail, it is more likely that you will quit, unless you are one hell of a masochistic bastard. In this case, pick the most brutal program there is and look how fast you will become a beast or end up in hospital.
I have run Stronglifts 5x5 to increase my bench press as a beginner and Jim Wendler 5/3/1 after that. Both are balanced programs which address your overall physique via the three main lifts (Deadlift, Squat / Bench Press). I would consider you a beginner if you can’t comfortably bench press your own body weight for 5 repetitions. I would consider you an intermediate if you can bench press 1.5 times your bodyweight for repetitions comfortably. From there judge whether you want to pick one of the two programmes which I have described in more detail on my blog in other posts. If you want a very specific program that is only tailored to the bench press shop around a bit. Powerliftingtowin is a good address to do just that.
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