Do I Have to Bench Press to Get a Good Chest?
If you go to a commercial gym, you probably find the Bench Press to be the most popular chest exercise.
Especially on Mondays for some reason.
Even so, I don't think it's an overrated exercise. It's an essential strength training exercise and one that deserves some respect.
It was one of the first weightlifting exercises I ever learned when I was a teenager. I bet the same holds true for most lifters. That and biceps curls. Ah, beach muscles. But I digress..
Bench pressing is great for upper body strength and power. For powerlifters it's one of the competitive movements. For college football it's one of the tests performed (225lbs. for max reps) before the NFL draft. The pec muscles are the primary movers but the shoulders and triceps are also targeted. The upper back provides support. Abs and glutes stabilize, and give a strong foundation.
Like any strength training exercise, form is important for building muscle and to avoid injury. Proper technique reduces risk and increases performance immensely. It's crucial to practice, practice, practice.
Depending on your goals you may bench with elbows "flared" or "tucked". Some people can get away with pressing with elbows flared but most lifters would be wise to have some elbow tuck.
The best way to know how to find your ideal position for benching is to keep your wrists above your elbows in a straight line all the way down to the bottom position. The bottom portion of the lift has the most potential for injury, especially for long-armed benchers.
Total Body Movement
Who thinks of the bench press as a total body movement? Most people don't, and technically it's not.
Just like the squat and deadlift, the safest way to lift more weight and build muscle is to tighten all muscles in the body. Focus on maintaining tightness throughout the exercise and squeeze the barbell hard.
Starting with the feet, there should be no energy leaks. Feet planted hard into the ground with no movement. Glutes squeezed, big breath of air into the abs and tighten as if you were going to get punched in the gut. Lock your upper back into the bench and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Grab the bar with a purpose and lift with rage.
There are two essential strength training exercises for the upper body. The standing overhead press is the other. You can lift more while on your back than standing but they are both important.
Leave the Ego at the Door
It's easy to let the ego take over on this exercise. Start light and build your way up. Doing half reps, or having a spotter do most of the lifting increases risk of injury, and cheats you of true gains. Plus it looks silly.
For essential strength, a full-range movement is ideal. Touch the bar to your chest on the way down and explode back up.Not all lifters can bench with a full range of motion so you need to be careful if you have pre-existing injuries. Be smart about it.
If you know the flat barbell bench bothers your shoulder try a different variation. Do some dumbbell bench or floor press or pushup variations to build up your strength.
If you've hit a plateau and your bench hasn't improved in months, it may be time to change up your routine. There are plenty of options but I find the more options there are the more complicated things get and the less results follow. So let's focus on just two options. Changing up the exercises or changing up the frequency.
For the guy who has been doing a typical Monday chest day with barbell bench and a ton of other chest movements we will change the frequency of bench pressing. This is the guy who is focused on general strength and muscle and not competing in powerlifting.
Instead of having one day devoted to chest and all the variations of benching, split them up into three days. For example Monday you would do flat bench,Wednesday you would do Incline Bench and Friday you could do dips.
Breaking up the usual Monday workout this way would reduce soreness after the Monday session and give you some variety throughout the week. Also the chest gets worked more frequently which is a good thing, as recent research has shown.
For the guy who wants to increase his bench press for powerlifting or to impress his friends you can increase frequency.The Russian lifters bench many times a week at reduced intensity and have great success with it. Make sure to start light and stay far away from true maxes when you increase frequency of benching.
The bench is a great lift if you can do it pain-free and make improvements. No one wants nagging injuries and/or to be stuck lifting the same weights for years. If you are having troubles improving your bench, try some of these ideas and start making gains again!
One more thing. Don't neglect your upper back and rear delts. The more you press, the more you need to focus on exercises like rows, pulldowns, facepulls, rear delt flyes. Keep the backside as strong as the front and stay healthy.