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If you’re one of those guys who thinks of the bench press merely as an exercise to be incorporated into your chest routine, it’s time to think again. Done right, the bench press can be a whole-body movement that develops overall strength and muscularity in a way that few other exercises can.
It also happens to be the one move you can perform in a gym that, when performed with respectable weight, is sure to turn heads. The trick to achieving all the benefits this iconic exercise has to offer, however, is to train specifically to improve your bench—a task that might not be as intuitive as you’d assume.
Every major muscle group in your body plays a role in proper bench pressing, especially when you start adding serious weight to the bar. And the fact is you can move major poundage whether you’re naturally barrel-chested or shallow, long-limbed or short, so long as you make the effort to develop all the supporting muscles that are recruited during a big bench. Once you do create this synergistic framework, though, you’ll be able to handle much heavier loads than ever before, which in turn will allow you to develop your chest muscles faster.
We’ll explain the role each of these supporting muscle groups plays and provide the optimal strategy for bringing them all together to turn you into one big, bad benching machine.
BENCH PRESS – It all starts with proper setup: Plant both feet firmly on the floor with your toes pushed to the front of your shoes. Retract your shoulder blades onto the bench, squeeze your lats, and put a death grip on the bar.
|The Big Bench Plan
Your first step involves finding your one-rep max (1RM). If you train by yourself and don’t feel safe doing this, you can use the following formula to calculate your estimated 1RM:
To develop that initial shove off your chest, you’ll need to train your legs and train them hard. It may sound a little counterintuitive, but the lower body serves as the foundation for bench pressing power. At the bottom of a properly executed press, your body is like a coiled spring, with all that potential energy stored in your legs. Fail to train your lower body to uncoil explosively and you’re sacrificing significant poundage.
To begin building this base you’ll want to dedicate one training day entirely to developing your lower body. You’ll squat, deadlift, and get your entire posterior chain ready to both drive and support heavy bench pressing. These lifts will strengthen your legs, of course, but they’ll also recruit your core and lower and upper back.
Though you may be supporting the bar with your arms and chest while benching, it’s your back that will be supporting the rest of your body as you brace yourself on the bench. Once you get the bar moving with your leg drive, it’ll be your lats that give you the push that accelerates the bar toward the midpoint of your bench stroke.
The exercises in this program work your back from all angles, providing the kind of volume and intensity that will give you overall mass and width, as well as improving your bench. In addition to performing deadlifts—which, by the way, are a vastly underrated upper-back movement—to work your lower body, you’ll be doing a pair of exercises that engage the lats in the same plane as the bench press: T-bar rows and chestsupported rows. You’ll finish off your back with a healthy dose of another great upper-body builder, pull-ups.
BARBELL EXTENSION – Lie on a flat bench. Hold a barbell over your chest with arms fully extended. Keeping your elbows pointed towards the ceiling, lower the bar to your forehead, then reverse the motion and return to the start position
Once you have the bar moving upward toward lockout, you’ll need to keep it in its “groove.” You’ll develop a feel for your own tempo, where everything feels like it’s in the right place throughout the full range of the movement. Once you’ve found it, stay there, as it will help you maintain optimal leverage and prevent injury. Shoulder strength is key here, not just for powering up big weight but also to protect those muscles that accomplish the press; and when they’re strong, every heavy rep will feel like it’s in this magic zone.
Conversely, if your shoulders aren’t strong enough to keep heavy weights stable when you’re benching, they are left vulnerable to myriad injuries. In this program, you’ll perform just one move to strengthen your shoulders, but it’s the most effective and efficient one ever invented: the standing barbell military press. We know it’s a fitness cliché, but when it comes to overall shoulder size and strength, this move will give you more bang for your buck than any other shoulder exercise.
Maintain proper form—which includes finishing with the bar above and slightly behind your head—and you’ll watch your bench numbers skyrocket within a few weeks.
At about the halfway point in your bench-press stroke, your triceps start getting involved in a major way. They’re the muscles that push the bar through to lockout position at the top, so triceps strength —especially in the long head—is an absolute necessity for big benching.
When you work the long head of your triceps, you’ll feel the strain closer to your elbows. In this program, you’ll be attacking this crucial region with plenty of close-grip bench presses and barbell extensions, aka skull crushers. Feel free to aesthetically balance out this muscle group by adding some overhead triceps extensions, but it’s your long head that will provide you with the power to lock out big weights.
STANDING MILITARY PRESS – With your feet shoulder-width apart, head up, and chest out, hold a barbell against your front delts with your hands also shoulder-width apart. Without using your legs, press the bar over and slightly behind your head, into a locked-out position at the top. Slowly lower the bar to the start position and repeat.
|Close-grip Bench Press||3||10|
|Ab Wheel Rollout||3-5||10|
T-BAR ROW – If you don’t have access to a dedicated T-bar apparatus, place a barbell in a corner, load the far end with plates, and straddle the bar. Place a double-D handle underneath the bar so that your hands come to your belly button at the top of the lift.
CLOSE-GRIP INCLINE BENCH PRESS – Lie on an incline bench. Grip the barbell a few inches outside the smooth middle segment. Lower the bar to your chest with your elbows tucked to your sides, then forcefully press it back up.
|Pullup||As many as necessary||50|
|Close-grip Incline Bench Press||3||10|
|Elbows-out Dumbbell Extension||3||10|
|Hanging Leg Raise||3–5||10|