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When two guys sit down at a bar and talk fitness, there’s just one question they use to size each other up: “What do you bench?”
Indeed, the bench press is the lift by which all strength is judged—and that’s when Bench Press Monday is a weekly ritual for most lifters.
But if you—Monday after Monday—have benched roughly the same amount of weight over the last year, improvement doesn’t lie in more benching. You need to work on the phase of the lift that’s pulling your numbers down, says Mike Robertson, C.S.C.S., a former powerlifting coach for Team USA, and co-owner of IFAST in Indianapolis.
“If we’re talking bench, we’re talking two really common sticking points and one less common one,” he says. “But fixing sticking points in the bench is the easiest way to improve your numbers.”
You falter when the bar is at your chest
Your chest and triceps—your “pressing” muscles—obviously need to be strong for you to have a big bench. But issues in this position often have more to do with your pulling muscles.
“Getting stuck off the chest is usually due to a stability and control issue, often because your upper back is weak.” Indeed, a strong upper back provides a more stable foundation for you to lift from.
“Having people do more upper back work often fixes this problem,” says Robertson. “I like row and chinup variations.”
Robertson adds that if your pulling muscles are strong but you’re still having issues, building a stronger chest does help some people.
“Doing some dumbbell bench presses builds up the pec muscles and builds stability,” he says.
Standing Supported Single-Arm Row
With a dumbbell in your right hand, place your left hand and left knee on a bench. Keep your back flat and upper body parallel to the floor, as your right arm hangs. Now raise your right upper arm to your rib cage, squeeze your shoulder blade back, and lower it again.
Hang at arm’s length from a chinup bar using an underhand, shoulder-width grip. This is the starting position. Pull your chest to the bar as fast as you can, pause for a three count while “pulling” your shoulder blades down. Take 2 seconds to lower to the starting position.
You fail midway through
The midpoint of the bench, where your elbows are bent about 90-degrees, is no-man’s land, says Robertson. “Your chest has just done it’s big effort, but your triceps aren’t in a great position to press yet,” he says.
That’s why your best bet is to do exercises that help you become a local in no-man’s land. “I like floor presses and board presses,” says Robertson. The reason: they both help you become stronger and more comfortable in the position where your elbows are bent 90-degrees.
Lie on your back and hold a barbell above your chest with your arms straight and knees bent. Lower the barbell until your upper arms touch the floor. Pause, and press the weight back up to the starting position.
Foam Roller Press
(This move replicates the board press, but uses equipment you can find in any gym.) Lie with your back on a bench and place a foam roller length-wise on your chest. Secure it with a resistance band, if need be. Grab the barbell overhead and hold it directly above your chest. Lower it to touch the foam roller, then press it back up.
You miss the lockout
Most guys don’t struggle with this phase of the lift, says Robertson. But if you’re not “most guys” and the final push eludes you, look to your triceps, he says.
“The lockout is really a big thrust from your triceps,” says Robertson. Your move: strengthen those muscles, which make up the back of your arms. You could do classic tri-isolating exercises like skull crushers and rope press downs, but something more bench press specific is a better option, says Robertson.
“I like the close grip bench press here,” he says. “Moving your hands in closer takes less stress off the chest and overloads the triceps. Plus, it requires a greater range of motion so the lockout phase is actually longer in this variation.”
Close Grip Barbell Bench Press
Using an overhand grip that’s a bit narrower than shoulder width, hold a barbell above your sternum with your arms straight. Lower the bar to your chest. Pause, then press the bar up. That’s one rep.