Improve Your Bench Press Workout: Exercise Selection – Powerlifting Shoes
You Will Learn:
— What exercises will best improve your bench press max
— Why these exercises are superior to others
— How to improve your bench press workout through better exercise selection
In the article “Tips to Increase Your Bench Press: Part One“, I stressed the importance of exercise selection when trying to increase your bench press. Some exercises, like tricep kickbacks and cable flies just aren’t going to cut it when trying to add muscle fast or increase your bench press strength due to the drastic disparities between the movements and the actual bench press. The movement patterns and adaptations caused from these two exercises are so different from the bench press that they make poor selections when trying to improve your bench press workout. But what are some good exercises to increase your bench press? In this article, I will rank some of the most common exercises used to increase your bench press and explain my rationale behind each. From this list and with the application of the SAID Principle (covered in the previous link), you should be able to create a bench press workout that will truly allow you to boost your bench press strength!
The Selection Process
When choosing which exercises will best improve your bench press workout, what criteria do you use? Do you look for exercises that shock the same muscle groups, movements that allow you to handle the largest amount of weight or choose the exercise that most closely resembles that of the bench press? While all of these have merit, specificity is key in strength training. Exercises should not be picked to “bring up” certain body parts like a bodybuilder, nor is a chest machine with a pulley going to increase your bench press to unheralded levels. Instead, exercises should be selected that closely resemble the bench press, differing only in a variable or two such as hand placement or range of motion. These exercises will always give the best carryover to the bench press, making you and your workouts more successful. With that out of the way, its time to move onto the best exercises to improve your bench press workout!
Paused Bench Press
The most important exercise to increase your bench press max is always going to be the bench press. This is in accordance with the SAID Principle which states that the body will adapt in such a way to best overcome the stress put on it. When trying to increase your bench press, you can almost never go wrong by adding in more benching. The key is not to add too much bench pressing too quickly. Start by adding in an extra working set here or there or by incorporating drop sets where you reduce the intensity by five to ten percent to work in a little bit more volume. You can even add another bench day entirely so long as you start light.
Touch and Go Bench Press, Long Paused Bench Press, Spoto Press
The touch and go bench press is simply the best press without a pause at the chest. This makes it a slightly easier lift due to the stretch reflex from the eccentric component — the portion of the lift in which the muscle fibers lengthen as they resist gravity during the descent of the bench press. Throughout the entire lowering phase, nerve activity increases as the muscle is stretched. Much like a stretched rubber band or a loaded spring, the muscle fibers want to restore to their natural state. Once the eccentric ends and the upward concentric component of the bench press begins, the muscle fibers begin to shorten, returning to their normal length as they releases energy from the tension that was stored in them on the way down.
On the other hand, the long paused bench press and Spoto press seek to eliminate the assistive qualities the rubber-band like stretch reflex provides from the lengthening of muscle fibers. During the long paused bench press, this is achieved with a longer pause which gives time for nerve activity to approach closer to baseline. Conversely, the Soto press doesn’t involve a longer pause, but a pause typically an inch or two away from the chest rather than directly off the chest. Although the range of motion has been slightly reduced, as has the stretching of the muscle fibers, resulting in an activity that is similar in difficulty to the paused bench press, although this ultimately depends upon the individual. Overall, all three exercises are staples because they all involve pressing with a barbell in the same plane as the paused bench press with only minor adjustments in either duration of exercise or range of motion.
Close Grip Bench Press, Wide Grip Bench Press, Slingshot Bench Press, Bench Press with Chains, Bench Press with Bands, Reverse Band Bench Press, Board Press
Although the exercises are not ranked from best to worst within their respective tiers, the close grip bench press and wide grip bench press are often preferred over the other exercises in this list. This is because both the close grip bench press and wide grip bench press rely solely upon a change in grip to create an adaptation that is very similar to, yet unique, from the paused bench press. Other variables such as range of motion, bar type, time under tension and the plane of movement are left unchanged.
The other bench press variants in tier two are distinct in that they require tools other than just a bench, bar and weight to use. To perform the Slingshot bench press optimally, it is necessary to have a Slingshot. As the name suggests, the Slingshot is a tool that helps you to bench press more. The Slingshot does this by running an elastic material across your chest that is then attached to each arm much like the uprights on a slingshot. The Slingshot then stretches with our chest during the eccentric of the bench press and acts like an enhanced version of our innate stretch reflex during the concentric. Because of its properties, the Slingshot helps us to bench press more weight than normally possible. This makes it an effective method for overload and acclimation to heavier weights. Unfortunately, there are some caveats to the Slingshot. Despite arguments to the contrary, bench press form with the Slingshot typically varies from the paused bench press, making it slightly less specific. In addition, the Slingshot’s elastic properties means that it helps the most when the material is most stretched– at the bottom of the bench press. This means that an over-reliance on the Slingshot would result in a lack of work at the bottom end of the bench, causing a lifter to become weaker at this portion of the lift. This is hardly a deal breaker though so long as bottom end work such as the long paused bench press, are emphasized. In the video below, the creator of the Slingshot, Mark Bell, discusses how to best use his invention to increase your bench press.
The bench press with chains, bench press with bands and reverse band bench press have gained popularity over the last ten years and for good reason. The implementation of bands and chains in bench press training is commonly known as training with accommodating resistance. When used correctly, bands and chains create greater strength production throughout certain parts of the movement. For example, when bench pressing with chains, there is less weight on the bar at the bottom of the movement because links of chains have settled on the floor. As the lifter presses the weight back up; however, the chains come off the floor and steadily add weight to the bar until nearly all of the links have come off the floor. From this, we can gather that bench pressing with chains will be the easiest at the bottom of the movement and hardest toward the top. The bench press with bands and reverse band bench press also show this same strength curve, although they do this through the variable resistance of bands rather than through the weight of chains. It is also the general consensus that accommodating resistance with bands is more taxing on our body than the use of chains. Regardless of which is chosen, all of these exercises increase speed, force production and improve lockout bench press strength. It’s no wonder these exercises are revered in powerlifting circles! Adaptations from accommodating resistance could significantly improve your bench press over a short period of time if used in conjunction with other bench press staples.
The board press is simply a bench press with a partial range of motion. During the board press, the bar is lowered until it touches a board. The lifter then pauses on the board for a second before pressing back up. The boards are typically made from 2×4’s that are nailed together and come in different sizes which allow the lifter to dictate his or her range of motion. Because the range of motion is reduced and therefore the amount of work is less, board presses can use more weight than a regular bench press. This provides overload and familiarizes the lifter with heavier weight much like the Slingshot does. The inclusion of the board press serves another purpose — to overcome sticking points. Every lifter tends to fail at a certain area of their bench. This area has been called the “sticking point” of the lift. While some people fail off the chest and others at lockout, most people tend to fail around halfway. Evidence suggests that bench pressing to a board right below the sticking point can effectively eliminate the sticking point by making us stronger at the weakest part of our bench. As the adage goes, you are only so strong as your weakest link, and the board press is considered one of the best ways to eliminate that weakness.
Incline Bench Press, Decline Bench Press, Barbell Overhead Press, Dumbbell Bench Press Variations, Pin Press, Isometric Bench Press
Although this is the final tier of this list, these exercises are still heavy hitters. Both the incline and decline bench press are pressing movements, just at a different angle than the bench press. One could play around with hand placement as well, although this is not recommended as it will only reduce the carryover to the bench press. Dumbbell bench press variations are solid pressing exercises that develop stabilization and symmetry, but also limits our ability to use heavier weights, particularly if the gym doesn’t carry heavier dumbbells. The barbell overhead press threatens the bench press’ rule as the king of upper body exercises but exhibits a movement pattern and loading of musculature that doesn’t translate the best to the bench press.
The pin press and isometric bench press are flat barbell bench pressing movements, and as such are extremely specific; however, neither has an eccentric component. While these exercises miss out on hypertrophy from the eccentric, the eccentric also creates the most tissue damage, increasing the likelihood of injury. The pin press is also the best choice when complete elimination of the stretch reflex aid is the goal, so long as time is taken between each rep. The isometric bench press may prove to be even more viable than the board press for sticking point eradication. Simply take an empty bar and press as hard as possible for a few seconds against pins set right below the sticking point.
More often than not, exercise selection when trying to improve a bench press is made to be an arduous process. It doesn’t need to be this way. Narrowing down your exercise pool will go a long way toward increasing your bench press strength. There is no reason to perform ten or more bench related movements throughout the week. This is unnecessary and potentially harmful. By expending your time and energy across so many exercises, you are limiting your ability to perform a few key exercises well. Workouts sprinkled with tricep pushdowns, cable flies and the pec deck are robbing you of hours that would be better served if devoted to the perfection of bench press form. Don’t make that mistake. First and foremost, lifting is a skill. In order to refine a skill, mindful and consistent practice must be put in. When considering exercise selection to improve your bench press, partition most of your time for the bench press and leave the rest for pressing movements that address a weakness in your bench press. If you do this, I guarantee you will be satisfied with the result. Be sure to check in soon for more bench press tips in Part Two of Tips to Increase your Bench Press!