Want to add more weight to your bench? Sliding more plates onto the barbell and just letting it rip isn’t always the answer. In fact, in my 16 years of coaching, I’ve seen far too many guys miss solid reps—or worse, take a bar to the neck—by allowing their egos to get in the way.
Instead of piling the extra weight on immediately, train smarter: There are a bunch of tiny tweaks lifters can adopt to reap large rewards on the bench. And I mean increasing both your size and the amount of weight you can push.
There are two types of bench press tweaks you can make: The first involves the setup, which guys notoriously flub. Most guys just plop on the bench like a dead fish, feet splayed out and putting no thought into their shoulder position. That’s a problem, since the bench press is more of a full-body movement than most people give it credit for. It’s the full-body tension and how you position yourself that will often dictate how much weight you’ll be able to hoist off your chest.
The second kind of bench press tweak involves how you’re actually executing the lift. Lots of times, guys aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing here, either—they’d just trying to rack it back up as soon as possible.
Thankfully, there are tiny tweaks you can make to both of these situations that will make your bench press more effective, and actually help you lift more weight safely. Here, 5 bench press fixes you must try.
Leg drive is an underrated component to the bench press. If your feet are just kind of “there,” and you pay zero attention to where you place them, you’re missing out on some significant gains.
I’ve seen guys instantaneously add 25 to 50 pounds to their bench press with this tip alone. Here’s how to do it.
First, position your feet so that they’re directly underneath your hips. Don’t let our legs hang down, but move them behind you, so your feet will line up directly with your hips. Whether or not your heels are down or up will depend on a few factors—namely, your leg length, and hip flexor extensibility—but you want to make sure you’re able to “press” them into the ground. I’m team “heels down.”
Now slide your feet out to the sides of the bench, just a few inches. At this point, you should really feel tension in your hips and quads. Squeeze your glutes. This is your ideal leg setup, which will allow you to use leg drive in your lift—and, that, of course, will allow you to press more weight off your chest.
Again, tension, or stability, is key here. If you want to possess the ability to bench press a Mack truck off your chest, you have to be aware of the position of your shoulder blades.
“Place your shoulder blades in your back pocket” is non-geek talk for making sure your shoulder blades are retracted (together) and depressed (down).
Not only will this make you more stable and able to support a heavy barbell in your hands, it will also help keep your shoulders healthy in the long run due to less wear and tear on the joints.
Leg drive? Check. Shoulders set and ready to rock and roll? Check.
Now let’s press!
When you unrack the barbell, be sure to let it “settle” before you initiate the lowering portion. A big mistake I see a lot of guys make is taking all this time to lock-in their set-up only to crumble because they’re too quick to lower the bar.
Here’s how you should do it:
First, you want to make sure you slide the barbell off the hooks rather than press it up and out. The former will allow you to maintain the proper shoulder blade position above. The latter will result in an unstable position.
As you unrack the barbell it’s going to move you around a little bit. It’s important to let it “settle” and to take a few seconds to gather your bearings. Think of this as a separate step: Set, or “fire,” your lats, keeping the bar straight and steady above you, before you initiate the descent.
As you lower the barbell, think about meeting the bar with your chest halfway rather than just lowering to your chest. This will allow you to maintain proper “set” shoulder blade position—catching a theme here—and shorten the distance the bar must travel.
Now, a tip on execution: Use slower tempo lifts to spark even more muscle growth.
A bigger muscle is generally a stronger muscle. And one of the most effective ways to nudge a muscle into growing more is to increase its “time under tension” (or TUT).
If you can make a muscle grow, theoretically it will be able to produce more force—due to its larger surface area—so you’ll be able to push more weight and get stronger.
Incorporating slower tempos, particularly during the lowering phase of the bench press, is a fail-proof way to accomplish this.
One approach I like to use with my clients is to have them perform “Tempo Bench Press” as an accessory movement after their main bench movement of the day.
They’ll perform 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions (using 55 to 70 percent of their one-rep max), making sure to use a 3 to 5 second count as they lower the barbell to their chest.
Another programming tip to consider would be to bench press two times per week. I really have to twist your arm to get you do that, right?
One day can be a “heavy” day where you perform more traditional strength-based set/rep schemes. That can be 5×5, 4×6, or working up to 3 to 5 sets of challenging singles and 90 percent of your one-rep max (that one’s for more advanced lifters).
On your second day, however, you can perform more repetition or “technique” based set/rep schemes where the focus is insatiable attention to detail on technique.
I’m a firm believer that most guys fail to get better with their bench press because their technique sucks. They often go too heavy, too often, and end up missing reps week in and week out.
On “technique day,” the idea is to purposely go lighter, using a load that’s around 55 to 75 percent of your one-rep max, so that your technique is impeccable.
An example may look like this:
Week 1: 3 sets of 5 reps at 80 percent of your one-rep max, resting 90 to 120 seconds between each set
Week 2: 4 sets of 4 reps at 83 percent of your one-rep max, resting 90 to 120 seconds between each set
Week 3: 5 sets of 2 reps at 85-87 percent of your one-rep max, resting 90 to 120 seconds between each set
Week 4: 3-5 sets of one at 90 percent of your one-rep max, resting 90 to 120 seconds between each set
Week 1: 6 sets of 3 reps at 70 percent of your one-rep max, with a 45 to 60 second rest
Week 2: 8 sets of 3 reps at 70 percent of your one-rep max, with a 45 to 60 second rest
Week 3: 10 sets of 3 reps at 70 percent of your one-rep max, with a 45 to 60 second rest
Week 4: 5 sets of 3 reps at 75 percent of your one-rep max, with a 45 to 60 second rest
Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., owner of CORE in Boston has worked with thousands of clients ranging from professional athletes to weekend warriors in his 15+ years in the industry. He likes Star Wars and gluten.