If the bench press hurts your shoulders, it’s because you haven’t read The Serious Guide to the Bench Press.
If your girlfriend can’t put up her body weight on the bench press, well, it’s because she hasn’t read The Serious Guide to the Bench Press.
If you have seen people benching with their feet in the air, they haven’t read The Serious Guide to the Bench Press (and they have a death wish).
If you want to add some serious pounds to your bench press, it’s time to read The Serious Guide to the Bench Press.
If you want to build a massive chest and horseshoe-shaped triceps, it’s time to read The Serious Guide to the Bench Press.
Did I mention The Serious Guide to the Bench Press?
Table of Contents
The necessities for the bench press are:
- A Barbell
- A sturdy bench
- A rack to hold the bar between sets
If you’re setting up a home gym for strength training, these items are the first things you will buy.
Just about every gym in America has a bench press, and if your gym doesn’t, you should switch gyms.
You can read more about the necessary equipment in our How to Perfect Your Bench Press Setup article.
If you use a standard bench press in a commercial gym, there isn’t much to set up the equipment correctly. However, if the starting height for the bar is adjustable, that is something important to set correctly, and you can read more about that here.
Assuming you’ve got the equipment set up correctly, the next step is setting yourself up correctly.
1. Chin under the bar
2. Slightly wider than shoulder-width grip
3. Shoulders set
4. Back arched
5. Legs planted firmly at 90 degrees in ankles and knees
Next, unrack the bar by extending your elbows to lift the bar 1″-2″; high enough to clear the catches (the place where the bar rests) but without fully extending your elbows. You should never fully extend your elbows when bench pressing unless performing single reps in preparation for competition. Maintaining “soft” elbows gives you more control over the bar.
Move the bar out of the rack to directly vertical over your shoulder joint.
Lower the bar until it touches your chest. Aim for a mostly vertical bar path here. The most crucial part is the bar needs to stay in perfect vertical alignment with your forearm.
Press the bar back to the starting point directly above your mid-chest but do not fully extend your elbows. We’re looking for 90%-95% of full extension (soft elbows). Soft elbows are essential because it helps you stabilize the load better by always keeping muscles on both sides of the elbow joint engaged between reps.
When you have completed the prescribed repetitions for the set, rack the bar by returning the bar to its resting place on the catches. If the rack is set to the correct height, you should never have to look where it is going—it will clear the catches, and you can set the bar down. Watch the video below for a quick technique tutorial on the barbell bench.
General Strength Programs
A quick word on programs:
Programs don’t work unless you do. Therefore, a mediocre program with a consistent application will always yield better results than a perfect program with inconsistent use.
A slightly longer word on programs:
Beginner programs are made for beginners. They are beginner programs because they progress quickly. Your fastest progress will always come when you start something (called beginner gains), and beginner programs take advantage of this.
Advanced programs progress slowly because your results slow down as you improve at anything. If you are new to strength training or bench pressing or haven’t done it in a while, you will get the best results from a beginner program.
Advanced programs WILL NOT make a novice lifter progress quicker than a beginner program.
Without getting into all the details of the program, let’s cover the essential parts:
- Bench press for 5 sets of 5 reps
- Increase the weight by 5lbs each time you do a bench press workout
If you are a complete beginner to the bench press, it is best to start with the bar (45lbs). A low starting weight allows you to focus on a correct setup & develop good habits when bench pressing without distracting you by making the set overly challenging. If the 45lb bar is too heavy to start with, see if you can find a lighter bar or use dumbbells until you gain the strength required.
If you bench press twice per week, adding 5lbs each workout, you will be at 5x5x85lbs in one month, 5x5x125lbs in two months, and 5x5x165lbs in three months. Those are rapid gains and would calculate to a 200lb one rep max bench press, assuming you can hit all the sets & reps for each workout leading up to that 5x5x165lbs day.
Remember that you will strength train for the rest of your life. So instead of being in a rush to put as much weight on the bar as possible, please hurry to develop the best technique as early as possible so you don’t get hurt or have to relearn it later.
You will cruise through the first 5×5 workouts, and that is fine. Your focus, in the beginning, should be on the setup. That is why we have accessory work (there is a whole section on this below). Focus on your technique & setup for the 5×5 bench and then get your soreness and pump from the accessory work. As the weight gets heavier, it will take more time to work through, and you will have less time for accessory work.Download The Seriously Strong Beginner Program
You can download the Seriously Strong Intermediate Program here.
This program has 12 weeks of programming for you. Follow the instructions, enter your 5RM lifts, and do the work.Download The Seriously Strong Intermediate Program
You can download the Seriously Strong Advanced Program here.
This program is just plain fun. We’ve taken elements of 5/3/1, the Cube method, and combined them with our expertise in teaching strength training to everyday people. It is a four-day-per-week program. Two days are upper, and two days are lower.
This program is 12 weeks long and will make advanced weightlifters tremendously strong.
All you have to do is download the program, put your maxes in, and follow it.Download The Seriously Strong Advanced Program
Bench Specific Program
Smolov Jr. is a 3-week program based on a much longer, more intense program called Smolov. Originally it was designed for squats, but people figured out it’s very effective for the bench press.
The program’s premise is to put all of your focus on one lift (the bench press) for one month and essentially neglect the rest of your training. A hyper fixation on the bench press is necessary because the program’s intensity requires all of your recovery efforts.
I’ve watched advanced clients add 30lbs to their bench in a month, increase their 1RM by 15%, and set lifetime PRs after stalling for months.
I’ve also watched beginners & intermediates develop tendinitis or be so sore from the high volume that they are weaker from this program. Your body needs to be ready for this level of intensity, and if you haven’t trained consistently for at least a year, your shoulders aren’t prepared.
Here’s a link to the Smolov Jr. Program so you can try it yourself.
Incline Bench PRess
The incline bench press is an excellent variation of the flat bench because it allows for more load on the chest with a lighter weight. More chest growth comes from increasing the bottom range of motion—the part of the bench where your chest works the hardest.
- Setup your body like you would for the flat bench. Leg drive & bar path are still important
- Put your hands 2″ wider on each side than your optimal flat bench grip
- It isn’t necessary to touch your chest. Work in a range of motion that is pain-free
You can use resistance bands to increase the load at the top of the rep (band resisted bench press) or decrease the load at the bottom (band-assisted bench press).
Band-assisted bench presses require bands & a power rack in addition to your standard equipment.
Band resisted bench presses require bands & an anchor point on the ground in addition to your standard equipment. The anchor could be something heavy like dumbbells or the pegs along the bottom if you have a power rack. Another option is to loop the band around the end of your barbell and then pass it under the bench before hooking it on the other end. In this setup, the bench becomes the anchor point.
Both make for valuable alterations to the bench but vary slightly. Band-assisted work will allow you to handle more weight at the top of the rep than you usually could. Band resisted work makes it feel like you have more weight on the bar at the top.
Chains do something very similar to the bands. They work on the concept of variable/accomodating resistance. They look cooler than bands and may or may not be easier to set up based on your equipment.
Another perk of using chains is that it is possible to know precisely how much weight you are adding at the top of your bench with the correct setup. Bands are not as obvious with the amount of resistance added.
The earthquake bar is a great way to train shoulder stability in the bench press. It is a lightweight bar made to suspend weights from resistance bands. Earthquake bars shake during the exercise, and your shoulders must stabilize the weight.
If this sounds interesting to you, cruise over to the article on How to Use an Earthquake Bar to Improve Your Shoulder Stability.
Accessory work is what you do to augment your main lift. That is why it’s called accessory work.
You should use your main lift to assess weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Next, you should decide what accessory work will bring your weaknesses up to par and use them.
Don’t have any weaknesses apparent in your main lift? That’s because of one or more of the following reasons:
- You aren’t looking hard enough
- You aren’t lifting hard enough
- You don’t know what to look for
If you fail a the top of your bench press, it is because of tricep weakness.
Tricep pushdowns are my favorite exercise to add mass to the tricep. You can use a straight bar or v-handle, single-arm, or both. It’s easy on the elbows, gives the shoulder a break, and easily gets high volume for massive hypertrophy. Go high volume—5+ sets of 10-20 reps.
If you struggle to get the bar out of the bottom on max effort sets, it is because your pecs aren’t up to par.
The cable machine is the answer. Instead of using it for traditional flyes, you want to perform a movement more similar to the dumbbell bench. Let the handles go back by bending the elbows and then press them forward & together with a focus on chest squeeze. Nothing will leave your pecs sore like this variation. Go high volume here as well—5+ sets of 10-20 reps.
Instability is usually a problem with your shoulders. It’s hard to pinpoint one muscle responsible for an unstable bench press, but it’s easy to recognize when this is the problem. If you don’t have complete control over every rep’s bar path, you could use some stability work. Nothing beats the earthquake bar for this.
Shoulder pain in the bench press is widespread and can be tough to fix. The best medicine is avoidance through great technique from day one. The most common cause is a poor setup that stresses the shoulder joint.
First, work on creating a perfect bench press setup.
The easy fix here is to squeeze the bar harder. The bar will be misaligned with the forearm if your wrists are relaxed. Relaxed wrists manifest as pain in the back of the wrist.
Aim to have a vertical alignment of the barbell over your ulna & radius (the forearm bones). Your forearm should be directly upright.
Anything short of perfect vertical alignment in the bar, wrist, and elbow will create joint pain.
The Serious Guide to the Low Bar Squat
The Serious Guide to the Conventional Deadlift
The Serious Guide to Nutrition
The Serious Guide to Core Training
The Serious Guide to Glute Training
The Seriously Strong YouTube Channel
The Seriously Strong Beginner Program
The Seriously Strong Intermediate Program
The Seriously Strong Advanced Program