Increasing your capability to bench press is a targeted goal that pays off in overall strength and size
Powerlifters are specialists in increasing the poundage of the big three movements. The squat and the deadlift definitely make up the biggest portion of their total but the first one most people will ask about is the bench, whether they are powerlifters, bodybuilders, or just recreational gym-goers.
A big bench may not crossover to many other sports, but it can definitely help with overall strength, muscle size and add a well-developed shape to your physique.
So, as a powerlifter/powerlifting coach I’m here to show you how to implement the tried and tested powerlifting secrets to get a bigger bench and chest.
Powerlifting is made up of the total of your best attempt of three squats, three bench presses, and three deadlifts, which are added together to make a total. The bench press will most often be the smallest contributor to your total, but this only increases the need for a big bench.
In competition, the lifter lies on the bench, with their butt, shoulders, and (in most federations) their head in contact with the bench. Their feet will have to be in contact with the floor (again, depending on the federation this could be the whole foot or they can have their heels up).
The lifter will have to unrack the bench, bring it down to their chest and wait for the referee to tell them to press, then they will press it back up and wait for a rack command. There you have your powerlifting bench press.
With those rules, you will see that there is no rule on where the lower back should be. This is where the arch comes in — this can be a divisive issue on the internet but the vast majority of literature is swayed in favour of it. However, if you’re not a powerlifter you won’t necessarily have to spend a lot of time developing it to any extremes, but becoming comfortable with it will allow for a safer bench press using more of your pectorals than your shoulders.
The arch allows for you to get your feet further underneath you while you bench, while also putting your spine in a solid position (your spine is naturally arched, you’re working with it here) as well as letting you bring the bar down to your chest in a better curve.
As this style of bench pressing allows for more pectoral involvement, it will increase the amount of chest growth, while also minimising the strain (and possibility of injury) on the shoulders. This means that if you master this technique you will be able to bench more weight, using more of your chest, more often as you won’t be injuring your shoulders any time soon.
As a powerlifting coach, it would be easy to talk all day about why the arch is useful, but you’re here for a big bench. So, let’s look at how to get that.
- When you lie down on the bench, the first thing to do is get your hands set. This should generally be wider than shoulder-width but not insanely wide. If you’re wanting to take your grip width out wider, do it slowly over a few weeks, or else you will be a lot weaker.
- Once your hands are set in an even position on the bar, you will then bring your feet up onto the bench. (Don’t worry, they’re not staying there.)
- Next, push your hips up to the ceiling and walk your feet up the bench towards your butt.
- With your hips still up, you will then put one foot down to the floor where you can comfortably place it.
- Are your hips still up? Bring the other foot down to the floor, while keeping the hips up as high as you can.
- Slowly lower the hips down to the bench. Don’t rush this bit, if you do, all of the previous setup will have been for nothing.
- Unrack the bar.
- Bring the bar down with the elbows tucked in on the way down.
- As you place the bar upon your chest you should imagine that you have only placed 1kg of the overall weight onto your chest. You do not want to let the bar sink or heave here.
- Push the weight up and back, so that it ends where it started: over your eyes, not in a straight line above your chest.
- Rerack the bar.
If you have followed these steps, then you have successfully completed a full powerlifting-style bench press.
The idea of splitting your training up into one day per muscle per week is prevalent in bodybuilding and recreational gym-going, and it does work for some people. However, if you’re wanting to increase strength and size it’s a good idea to do bench press more often.
Most of the powerlifters I train will bench 3-4x per week.
Your chest, front deltoids, and triceps will generally take around two days to recover. Meaning that you could train them every third day or so. With my powerlifters, they’ll often have days of benching back to back but I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that straight away.
The suggestion here isn’t for people to have three or four chest days per week, rather they could set their week out into Push/Pull/Legs with two variations of each day. Meaning if they train five times per week, they could easily get two push sessions in.
You could also go for a more powerlifting style routine, which will likely include a squat or a deadlift movement followed by a bench movement.
How you do this is up to you, but frequency is important when building a big bench. What is advisable though, is to alter the difficulty of each bench session. Which is where volume and intensity come in.
These are two of the major players when it comes to programming. It is very rarely about fancy exercise selection, more often than not it is about using the same exercises but playing with their volume and intensity in such a way that you can improve while also recovering.
Volume is generally the amount of work you do. In strength training this is quite often the weight lifted x the sets x the reps.
Intensity is the difficulty. So if you were to do a set with 90% of your max, this would be more intense than one of 80%.
These factors work hand-in-hand: a more intense set will need a lower volume and a more voluminous set will need to be less intense. Generally, in a good training plan, as the intensity goes up, the volume comes down in order for the lifter to recover and generally not break down.
As stated above, you want to be benching more often. But when you first do this, your extra days will have to be lighter than your main day. This could be split up in a number of ways, and a way that has been found effective is like so:
- Day 1 – Bench press @70% with 4 sets of 8
- Day 2 – Bench press @75% with 5 sets of 6
- Day 3 – Bench press @ 80% with 6 sets of 4
This way of laying it out allows for you to focus on hypertrophy on day one, power on day two, and strength on day three.
Week 2 would be the same but you would add 2.5kg, and again for week 3.
Often you would lower the weights in week 4 and then begin again after a short recovery period.
If you’re really confident with it and have a spotter, you can have day three include an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) set. If you do this, the last set would be where you see how many repetitions you can get with that weight. This allows you to eke out a little bit of extra volume.
If you want to bench heavy like a powerlifter while also improving your overall chest development, then you can master the technique while utilising frequency, volume, and intensity. Basically, you should learn to lift like a powerlifter for a big bench and chest.