After the biceps curl, the barbell bench press is arguably the most popular upper-body exercise. Targeting your lower pectoralis major and synergistically working your upper pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, and triceps brachii, the barbell bench press is brilliant for:
- building upper-body muscle mass
- developing upper-body strength
- strengthening your horizontal push.
The barbell bench press is also one of those exercises by which you are measured as a man. The more weight you can press, the more respect you will get from your gym buddies. (We guys are simple beings.) With that in mind, below I provide a list of tips that will help you to increase your barbell bench press. The tips come from powerlifting.
Remember that you must balance your horizontal pushing exercises with horizontal pulling exercises. In fact, your horizontal pull should be stronger than your horizontal push by a ratio of 3:2. If you’re not following a properly balanced weight training program, you could end up with muscle strength imbalances, joint instability, and a physique with unfavorable proportions. I explain how I balance my training programs on this page (look for Exercise balance).
Tips to increase your barbell bench press
Tip 1. Tuck in your elbows
This tip will not only help you to bench more weight but will also help you to avoid damaging your shoulders, which is common amongst gym-goers!
Benching heavy weights can cause shoulder injuries. The best way to avoid this is to keep your elbows tucked in a bit closer to your body (Figure 1). Doing so will put less emphasis on your anterior deltoid and more emphasis on your triceps brachii, thus alleviating the stress placed on your shoulder complexes.
Tip 2. Plant your feet
Pull your feet back and plant them flat on the floor (Figure 2). Feel the floor beneath your feet. When you lift, drive from your heels, through your body, and up through your arms! If you can’t plant your feet flat on the floor, plant the balls of your feet and drive from them instead.
You should also try spreading your feet out wide to see if it gives you more balance, stability, and grounding.
Tip 3. Arch your back
Most people can bench more weight when they do a decline bench press because it recruits more lower-chest muscle fibres and fewer upper-chest muscle fibers. Therefore, try arching your back (Figure 2). Doing so is the closest way that you can get to a declined angle when on a flat bench. Arching your back will also activate more stabilizer muscles, which will increase your strength.
Tip 4. Hold your breath
When training, you should usually inhale during the eccentric (lowering) phase of the rep and exhale during the concentric (lifting) phase of the rep. However, when it comes to performing a heavy lift, it’s another ball game!
Take a deep breath before you unrack the bar, and hold that breath until the lift is over (no longer than that). Holding your breath will keep your entire body tight and give you a stable base from which to press. If you let your breath out during a max lift attempt, your body will become less stable. Try to fill your belly with air instead of your chest. This may take practice, but it’s worth it because it’s more effective.
Some people prefer to take two breaths: one when they unrack the bar, which they then exhale, and another before they start to lower the bar. Give both techniques a try and see which one works for you.
Tip 5. Keep your wrists straight
Grip the bar low in your palms and keep your wrists straight (Figure 3). This will help you to transfer your power straight up to the bar. If you hold the bar too high in your palms, your wrists will bend backward and you will lose a bit of your ability to drive upward. You may also hurt your wrists!
A pair of wrist wraps can help you to keep your wrists straight. However, you should use these only when performing major lifts. Otherwise, you will prevent your wrists from strengthening and you will grow dependent on the wraps.
Tip 6. Squeeze the bar
Try this: Flex your biceps twice, once without clenching your fist and once while clenching your fist. You should be able to contract your biceps harder when you clench your fist. Now, apply this same principle to the barbell bench press.
When benching, if you squeeze the bar with your hands and keep your entire body tight and contracted, you will be able to get a stronger contraction from the target and synergistic muscles, which will help you to pull off a much bigger bench!
I hope those tips are of use to you. Please remember that the barbell bench press can be very dangerous when lifting heavy. If a tendon snaps, the bar can come crashing down onto your face! Therefore, always make sure to have a spotter ready or use a power rack for safety. If you have access to neither, you can also use a Smith machine, with the safety pins locked at a safe height.