7 bench press variations to try
We’ve already looked at some great squat variations that I use with athletes and powerlifters. Let’s have a look at some of the bench press movements too.
Pause bench press
Almost always this will be with a 3 second pause on the chest. I usually prescribe this exercise instead of regular bench press and is the most common variation for many people. I don’t know about your country and federation, but the pauses in competition here are pretty long, certainly not three seconds but long enough that people will sometimes be shocked and exclaim excuses like they ”never got a press command”. Well, if you’ve held it there for three seconds in the past a one second pause won’t be very hard to do.
For beginners this is a very important exercise because they will usually bounce bars off the chest while flailing around like a dead fish. This exercise absolutely prevents that if taught correctly.
I like to keep repetitions low, three or lower, and the weights high. If the athlete can’t perform this exercise with heavy weights then their technique is off or their personal bests in bench press were ”cheating”. One common mistake to look out for is relaxing of the lats in the bottom position, the back must stay tight at all times. Another one might seem a bit odd, it’s lowering the bar too slowly. I’ve seen many times that lifters will lower the bar slower than they would in a normal bench press. While doing slow eccentric training certainly has its value it’s not what we’re going for here.
Close grip bench press
For me, back in ye olden days when I actually bench pressed, this was my predictor. Actually, the last serious bench press cycle I did I never even trained the regular bench press but I did push up my close grip bench press and from that I could predict with exact accuracy what my regular bench press was. If it has the same carryover for you then you should spend up to 50% of your bench press training improving it.
First let’s define what the close grip actually is. In my world it’s roughly shoulder width and for most people that will end up being very close to the smooth. You will often see people going to wide. Twice I’ve had female lifters that were half my size (well, maybe a bit exaggerated but close to!) use a wider grip than I did before I corrected them! Don’t go too narrow either, meaning hands touching each other. Also make sure to pause the bar on the chest like you would any other bench press.
The benefits of the close grip bench press are tremendous. Some will say it’s just more triceps but there’s a lot more to it than that. Perhaps the most important aspect has nothing to do with what muscle you train but rather the fact that it provides a longer range of motion, meaning that you will have to strain for a longer period of time. If you’re interested in muscle activation the close grip bench press will also provide a longer stretch for the pectoral muscle than a wider grip, contrary to what rubbish you might have read or heard.
Many will find that their so called ”sticking point”, which is the point where the barbell stops not only to accelerate but also comes to a dead stop when the weights are too heavy, moves higher up in the close grip bench press compared to the regular. Due to mechanical advantages it’s easier to push the bar from the chest with a closer grip but harder to lock it out.
I prescribe close grip bench presses for just about all powerlifters and athletes. Any repetition range can be used depending on the goal.
Like the box squat mentioned in the previous article, the board press is misunderstood to be something that only geared powerlifters should use. That’s complete nonsense. If you read about the training of some of the strongest people as far back as the 50’s and 60’s you will find that heavy lockouts and board presses were commonly used to build strength. Obviously there was no gear back then.
The advantages and disadvantages should be easy to understand. Due to the shorter range of motion you can usually handle more weight in the exercise. Also due to the shorter range of motion the training effect on some motor units will be less. Many will be able to handle a lot more weight than in their reguar bench press but there are a few, in my experience typically shorter people with very wide grip for their length, that will not be able to use significantly more weight. For these people I don’t see the board press as valuable but your milage may vary.
I often prescribe this exercise in a similar fashion I do the box squat, meaning doing first 1-3 sets of board press then regular bench press afterwards. The weights used in board press are very close to maximum bench press weights and preferably higher.
Incline bench press
For a long time I was undecided on the value of the incline bench press until I tested nearly all of my lifters in the exercise and compared it to their best bench press and found that I could predict their results (without telling them beforehand – very important) almost to the exact kg. After my Olympic weightlifting competition season I also decided to train the incline bench press for a few weeks and doing no regular bench pressing at all. I hadn’t done any type of bench pressing for probably 1-2 years so I had no idea where I was at. When I tested my bench press it was exactly where I predicted it to be in relation to my incline bench press. The correlation was obvious.
When using the incline bench press as a main movement I want the angle of the bench to be 45 degrees. I also prescribe high incline bench press but so far only as extra work after the main exercise which is why I’m not covering it here. Due to the angle of the bench the point of the chest where you touch the bar will be higher than in regular bench press.
Incline close grip bench press
Another favorite of mine, you should understand why if you read the sections about the close grip bench press and the incline bench press. Use the close grip as described in the close grip bench press and the same angle of the bench as in the incline bench press. You’re likely to find that the same ratio between the close grip bench press and the bench press exist in the incline bench press and the incline close grip bench press.
The major mistake to look out for in both incline variations is the lifter trying to turn it into a regular bench press either by creating a very strange looking arch or lifting the butt of the bench. Both must be avoided as it negates the effect that we’re trying to create. Sure, tuck the shoulder blades and plant your feet firmly but don’t go for an excessive arch.
I prescribe both incline bench press variations in a similar fashion I would the regular bench press or close grip bench press. I also tend to favor backoff sets after sets with the top weight.
Speaking of exercises that gets messed up – here’s the prime example! In the floor press you simply lay on the floor and bench press. You will quickly find that the range of motion is decreased significantly due to your upper arms coming to a stop at the floor. Incidentally this is a very common sticking point for people.
The major things to look for are not pausing enough and too much leg drive. The first is easily solved by telling your lifter that if they don’t pause the next repetition they will have to do sets of 10-20 after. The pause is critical, I can’t stress this enough. ”Bouncing” off the floor press could not only mean bad news for your arms, it also completely ruins the test (we’ll get to that). Using leg drive does the same because the floor press is meant as a test for upper body strength. Lately I’ve simply told my lifters to always do it with straight legs because they will cheat otherwise.
I don’t prescribe the floor press often but I’ve included it for years. The way I do it is once every few months and for a single repetition maximum. It’s simply a test for upper body strength. If the floor press is very close to the max bench press then it’s often an indication of poor technique in the bench press. If it’s very low in comparison then it’s an indication of poor upper body strength. There are exceptions. Some body types will have a very short range of motion and some will actually touch their chest with the barbell. I’m currently experimenting with properly training the floor press as a lift (as opposed to just testing it) with one of my lifters who are of the latter type but it’s too early to say what the value of it is. For other people I never do that.
Bench Press with bands or chains
I was a big fan of bench pressing with bands myself and felt it did very good things for my bench press. I’ve not always seen the same carryover for other people which is why it’s at the bottom of this list. Well, because of that and sometimes the issues of setting the bands up but that’s another story. Note that when I’m talking about bench pressing with bands I’m always talking about adding resistance to the top of the movement, NOT reverse bands which I at the present time never prescribe.
My take on bands might be different on what the gut instinct of many say. For instance I like them for beginners. The reason is the same as I noted for the pause bench press, it teaches people tightness. Second, I don’t see it as an exercise to overload the top. Of course it does but I’ve always felt it help with starting strength too. The reason is when the weights get significant you learn really quickly to blast off the chest otherwise you won’t get through the top. While this is great for skill training there are other ways to achieve similar effects without the setup that bands require which is why they aren’t included all the time.
Chains have a similar effect but not the same since they don’t “shoot” the barbell down towards your chest creating the overspeed eccentric that bands do. Overall I feel the bands are more useful for bench pressing most of the time. Sometimes I use a combination of both and that’s fun but it’s not a mainstay.
As for sets and repetitions, I keep them submaximal and stay fairly close to Louie Simmons’ recommendations of around 80% of maximal weights (at the top, so including the bands and chains), possibly higher if the lifts look good and move well.
That’s it for now
In the next installment we’ll look at the deadlift. These were some of the most commonly used bench press variations among my lifters. Try them out and see if they work for you.