Whether you’re competing against others, or just competing against yourself, increasing your bench press max (the maximum weight that you can bench press in a single repetition) takes intentional effort. This article provides practical advice to help you bench press more weight.
Ways to Increase Bench Press Max
Before you tackle the goal of increasing your bench press max, you must build a strong lifting foundation first. Just like you wouldn’t build a house on a cracked foundation, neither should you attempt to load any movement without making sure your physical foundation is sound.
Training for 4 weeks in the Stabilization Endurance Training phase, and then 4 weeks in the Strength Endurance Training phase will help you build a rock-solid foundation. Once you’ve successfully progressed through these training phases, you’ll be ready to add some weight to the bar.
Lift with Proper Form
The most important part of increasing weight in any exercise is proper form. Why? If you don’t do the move properly, the right muscles won’t be firing at the right time, resulting in decreased output from your prime movers.
This is especially important with a move like bench press, where significantly smaller muscle groups tend to try to help and take over. If the pecs can’t fire at maximum capacity due to poor form, it will significantly lower the amount of weight that you can lift.
If you own a home gym, buying a high quality barbell can be a gamechanger for your bench press lifting form too!
Here’s how to bench properly:
1. Lie on your back with a neutral spine (not pressing down into the bench, and not over-arching), with feet flat on the floor with the toes straight ahead. Grab the barbell at 1.5 – 2x shoulder width, with hands evenly spaced. Draw in and brace the abs and pull the shoulder blades down and back.
2. Unrack the bar (a spotter can be especially helpful here!) to bring it directly above the shoulders. Lower the bar toward the mid to lower chest, going as low as you can control with good form.
3. Squeeze the abs and glutes and drive through your feet on the floor as you exhale and press the bar back up to the starting position.
See this blog post on maximizing bench press form.
Increase the Weight & Lower Rep Range
To increase maximum strength, you’ll want to lift in the 1-5 rep range for 4-6 sets. As the repetitions get lower, the weight gets heavier, thus helping you to build your capacity to lift more. Not sure what weight to use for 1-5 reps? Use our One Rep Max Calculator to get your estimated 1RM based on what you can currently bench press at a higher rep range.
The results will show you where to start.
Because of the heavy load required in Maximal Strength Training, more rest will be needed between sets. It’s recommended that you rest 2-4 minutes between sets of bench. Short on time? You can perform other exercises using other muscle groups as part of that rest time if you’re looking for efficiency in the gym.
Try Different Set Formats
Most lifters are familiar with what’s called horizontal loading, also known as straight sets. This is where you perform one exercise, rest, and repeat for the desired number of sets. This is a great protocol to follow and will be very effective in helping you reach your goal of increasing your maximum bench press!
For a different challenge, you might consider trying what’s called a pyramid set. For a strength goal, you’ll start with 10 to 12 repetitions with a light load, and increase the load for each following set until you can only perform 1 to 2 reps. Here’s an example:
|Set 1||10-12 Repetitions|
|Set 2||8 Repetitions|
|Set 3||6 Repetitions|
|Set 4||4 Repetitions|
|Set 5||2 Repetitions|
|Set 6||1 Repetition|
*Increase the weight each set so that you reach fatigue at the designated number of repetitions
Train Your Synergists
The pecs aren’t alone in performing the bench press. The synergists are the muscles that help the primary muscle group move. The anterior delts and triceps help the pecs during the bench press, while the rotator cuff stabilizes the shoulder joint. Incorporating some accessory moves for these muscle groups (at a higher rep range, 8-20 reps) can support your max strength goals.
Training Frequency Should Match Max Strength Goal
When training in the Maximal Strength phase, it’s appropriate to lift 4 days a week, using a split routine. With the specific goal of increasing your bench press max, you’ll want to train that movement two days a week to allow for adequate recovery. Your split might be Chest/Shoulders/Triceps 2 days/week and Back/Legs/Biceps 2 days/week.
Exercises to help with bench press max
When you’re trying to improve a specific lift, the principle of specificity remains true. If you want to lift heavier in your bench press, you need to bench press. The benefit of incorporating these other bench press variations is to help you continue to build strength by slightly changing the stimulus.
You can test your one rep max with the NASM one-rep max calculator here.
Bench Press with Bands or Chains
See exercise demonstration for Bench Press with Bands:
Check out the an exercise demonstration for Bench Press with Chains:
The benefit: Adding chains or bands to your bench press includes the added challenge of increasing resistance as you press. In the banded variation, the band stretches as you press, making it harder. In the chains variation, more links are added as you press, which adds more weight. With both variations, the heaviest load is at the top of the movement, and the resistance decreases as you lower the bar.
Incline Bench Press
The benefit: The incline bench press exercise places more of a focus on the anterior deltoids, which need to be well-trained to help you maximize your bench press.
Dumbbell Chest Press
(Note: Video shows the use of a band, this is optional)
The benefit: When you hold a bar for bench press, your dominant side can do a little bit of extra work to compensate for your non-dominant side. When you use dumbbells, these slight discrepancies become more obvious (since each arm controls its own dumbbell) and you can train to allow your non-dominant side to catch up.
Close Grip Bench Press
The benefit: This exercise puts extra emphasis on the deltoids and triceps, which play a big role in performing the bench press.
Sample Bench Press Program to Increase PR
Sample program for a Chest/Shoulders/Tri’s Max Strength program:
|Foam Roll: Pecs, lats, Thoracic spine|
|Active Stretch: Pecs and lats|
Activation (core and balance)
Single leg RDL +
Scaption at the top
|Barbell Bench Press||5||5||Explosive||3 Minutes|
|Incline Bench Press||5||5||Explosive||3 Minutes|
|Close Grip Bench||5||5||Explosive||3 Minutes|
Lateral raise Military press Cable triceps extension
|3||12||Moderate||0-62 seconds after the tri-set|
Cool Down: Static Stretch Pecs and Lats
Each week, you can decrease the reps and increase the weight to train for maximal strength. It might help to have one day of the week where you lower the reps/increase the weight and a second day where you do pyramid training to mix things up so that you continue to progress and get stronger. Make a plan for 4-6 weeks of strength building, and then give yourself 1-2 weeks of lighter training or stabilization work for recovery before hitting it hard again.
Foods to Eat to Increase Bench Press Max Strength
As with any health and fitness goal, nutrition is a major key to success. You will want to fuel your training program with 1.6 – 2.0 grams per kg of body weight of protein per day, at least 1 gram per kg of bodyweight of fat per day, and the rest of your calories will come from healthy carbohydrates sources. Check out this Calorie Calculator to create a personalized nutrition plan based on your activity level and goals.
Can You Increase Bench Press Fast, Or Should You Take It Slow?
While it might seem like increasing the number of days that you train will help you reach your goals faster, over-training can increase your risk of injury and decrease results due to fatigue. You’re better off sticking with 2 chest days/week to allow for adequate recovery so that you can get the gains you’re training for.
What Other Weak Muscles Can Slow PR Progress?
If the anterior deltoids, triceps, and rotator cuff are not properly trained, they can limit the amount that you can bench press. Building a solid foundation, as previously mentioned, can help you to avoid major muscle deficiencies, while intentionally training these synergists can boost results.
Build a solid and stable foundation first, program for your goals, and prioritize good sleep and nutrition to get the best results!