Accessory Onslaught #2: The Bench Press

In part one of this series, I discussed how employing specific assistance lifts can improve your poundage’s in the squat. In part two, I will give you plenty of exercises that will help you build a stronger, more powerful bench press. Beyond that, I’ll give you plenty of exercises to keep your shoulders healthy as well!

Primary Muscles Used

Before describing the exercises, we need to have a basic understanding of the muscles that are working when bench press. Below are the three prime movers, as well as the stabilizers when benching:

Pectoralis Major

The pecs (as they are commonly referred to) are the prime movers in the first half of the bench press movement. The pecs are generally referred to as two sections: the clavicular fibers (up near your collarbone) and your sternal fibers (near the midline of your chest). The primary roles of the pecs are adduction and internal rotation of the humerus. The clavicular portion also flexes the arm from extension.

Anterior Deltoid

The anterior deltoid is the front third of the deltoid muscle group. The movements of the anterior deltoid are identical to those of the clavicular fibers of the pecs: flexion of the arm and internal rotation (they actually do a little bit more, but these are the primary roles when bench pressing).

Triceps

The triceps are the muscles on the back of your arms. The triceps are actually three separate ‘heads’ (hence their anatomical name of tri-ceps brachii), and consist of the long, medial and lateral heads. The primary role of the triceps is extension of the elbow (taking a bent elbow and straightening it out).

All Low Body Muscle Groups

(Glutes, Hamstrings, Quadriceps), Scapular Retractors (Rhomboids, Middle Trapezius), Scapular Depressors (Lower Fibers of Trapezius) and Forearms

To go into the role of each of these muscle groups is an article in and of itself, but their synergistic role in bench pressing is simple: To maximally stabilize your body to help you move the most weight! The scapular retractors and depressors are extremely important when you consider their role in shoulder stabilization and keeping you healthy.

Primary Assistance Exercises

Primary assistance exercises are usually performed on your 2nd upper body day of the week. They are called primary because they are an excellent way to develop the same prime movers of the bench press, but in a slightly different manner. These exercises should be placed first or second in your workout. Primary assistance exercises refer to variations of the bench press or a specific portion of the bench press. Primary assistance exercises for the bench press include barbell inclines or declines, dumbbell flat bench, incline or decline, or heavy lockout work such as board or floor presses. The most recent addition to this list is speed work, which can employ methods of accommodating resistance such as bands or chains. All variations will be covered below.

Incline or Decline Barbell Bench Presses

Heavy incline or decline work with a barbell gives you the benefits of all barbell exercises (most specifically heavier weights when compared to dumbbells), while providing the body a break from the basic flat barbell bench. Inclines and declines are great for adding some variety into your training, and they give the muscles a different stimulus when compared to the flat bench.

Prime movers

Pectoralis major, triceps, and anterior deltoids (inclines recruit the anterior deltoids and upper pectoralis more than a flat bench, while declines increase recruitment of the sternal pectoralis and triceps)

Set-up

The set-up for both of these exercises is similar. Adjust the bench to an appropriate angle, retract the scapulae and pull them down (pull your shoulder blades down and back), and for inclines place your feet flat on the floor. You should have a slight arch in your lower back and your entire body should be tight.

Performance

Again, performance of these two exercises is very similar. The main difference is where the bar is lowered: On inclines you will lower the bar to a point higher on your chest than you would a flat bench, and on declines you take the bar to a point slightly lower than you would a flat bench. Lower the bar with speed and under control, keep the elbows tucked, and then drive the back up to the starting position. The entire body should be held tight throughout the course of the movement.

Exercise Tips

  • Retract and depress the shoulder blades when setting up
  • Lower the bar with speed yet under control

Inclines and Declines will help your bench press by:

  • Improving the strength of your prime movers
  • Helping you just plain Get Stronger!

Dumbbell Bench Presses (incline, decline, or flat)

Dumbbell bench presses are another great way to help improve your bench press. When using dumbbells, you get the benefits of increased range of motion (ROM), as well as using each arm independent of the other. Dumbbell work can be performed on any of the benches listed above (incline, decline and flat benches).

Prime movers

  • Pectoralis major,
  • triceps,
  • anterior deltoids

Set-up

Set-up and performance will be nearly identical for all of these exercises and the same as listed above. Grab an appropriate weight and set-up with the scapulae pulled back and down, the chest slightly elevated and the entire body tight.

Performance

Starting from the top position, lower the dumbbells to a position just outside the chest. The elbows should stay tucked, and make sure not to let the dumbbells deviate too far away from the body as this puts unnecessary stress on the shoulder. From the bottom position, drive the dumbbells back up to the starting position.

Exercise Tips

  • ” Retract and depress the shoulder blades when setting up
  • ” Make sure to keep the dumbbells in tight to your body

Dumbbell bench presses will help your bench press by:

  • ” Improving the strength of your prime movers
  • ” Improving your strength off the chest

Dumbbell Bench Presses on a Stability Ball

Dumbbell bench presses on a stability ball are a great way to improve your bench press, especially with regards to improving spatial awareness and learning to get tight. Once you are comfortable and proficient at this exercise, your poundage’s should be close to what you would use on a normal dumbbell bench.

Prime movers

  • Pectoralis major,
  • triceps,
  • anterior deltoids

Set-up

Sit on a stability ball with the dumbbells resting on your thighs. Walk yourself out until your upper back and head are supported by the ball and swing the dumbbells up to the starting position. Again, the scapulae should be pulled back and down before starting. To complete your set-up, make sure to keep your hips up and get your body TIGHT!

Performance

Getting started may be the hardest part of this exercise. If you need help, have a spotter aid you in getting the dumbbells up to the starting position. From the top, the performance is the same as any dumbbell exercise: Keeping the elbows tucked, lower the dumbbells to just outside the chest and then drive them back up the starting position.

Exercise Tips

  • Retract and depress the shoulder blades when setting up
  • Keep your hips up and your entire body tight to minimize sway on the ball

Dumbbell bench presses on a stability ball will help your bench press by:

  • Improving the strength of your prime movers
  • Teaching you to get tight and stabilize heavy loads in a chaotic environment

Board Press

The board press is an excellent exercise for developing lockout strength, while still keeping the movement very similar to a competitive bench press. Several 2×4’s are stacked on the chest to shorten the range of motion and develop a powerful lockout

When getting close to a meet, I prefer to use the board press as my primary accessory lift because it helps me find the groove of my bench shirt, while also keeping my lower body involved in the lift (which is one of the only drawbacks to floor presses). Please note that you can also include methods of accommodating resistance to your board presses (e.g. chains and bands) to further improve performance. More boards can be added to increase the weight used and further increase the involvement of the triceps.

Prime movers

Pectoralis major, triceps and anterior deltoids (with an increased emphasis on the triceps when compared to a flat bench)

Set-up

Setting up for a board press is identical to how you would set-up for a competitive bench press. Many articles have been written that pertain specifically to the set-up, so if you would like an in-depth description please check out my article “Biomechanics of the Bench Press” in the Oct/Nov 2003 issue of Monster Muscle.

Performance

Again, performance of this exercise is identical to that of the competitive bench press, with the only difference being you won’t lower the bar all the way to the chest. You should strive to lower the bar under control, but with speed, in the exact line you would use in competition. Keep the body tight and then drive the bar back to the starting position.

Many powerlifters actually use the board press to help break-in their new bench shirts. They start out using several boards and perform a repetition, then add weight and take a board away. This is repeated until the lifter is comfortable with the shirt and then takes a weight through the full ROM. Not only do you break the shirt in, but you also learn the “line” of the shirt without trying to change your mechanics just to get the weight down to your chest.

Exercise Tips

  • Retract and depress the shoulder blades when setting up
  • Lower the bar with speed and under control to the board

Board presses will help your bench press by:

  • Improving lockout strength (specifically the triceps)
  • Getting heavy loads in your hands to increase confidence and prepare you for big attempts in a meet

Floor Press

The floor press is another exercise that can be used to develop the lockout, although it’s not quite as specific as the board press. In the floor press the bar is lowered until the elbows touch the ground versus hitting the board.

The floor press, like the board press, puts a premium on lockout strength. The only downside is that it takes the lower body out of the lift and it’s harder to get tight. For these reasons, you typically can’t use as much weight as you can in a board press. Methods of accommodating resistance can be used (e.g. bands and chains) as well.

The reverse band floor press is another variation that does an excellent job of mimicking the biomechanics of a bench shirt. Set-up by attaching the bands to the top of a power rack and let them hang down. Place the bar in the bands and load up some weight. This variation is very similar to a bench shirt, where you get spring off the chest (where the bands are stretched) and less help as you drive the weight to the locked-out position (as the tension on the bands decreases).

Prime movers

Pectoralis major, triceps and anterior deltoids (with an increased emphasis on the triceps when compared to a flat bench)

Set-up

The set-up for a floor press is slightly different from the other presses, again, because you can’t use your lower body. The knees should be bent, with the feet flat on the floor. You still want to have a small arch in your lower back, and the scapulae should be retracted and depressed.

Performance

From the starting position, lower the bar with speed and under control until the upper arm is flat on the floor. Break the momentum, and then drive the bar back to the starting position. The elbows should stay tucked throughout the movement, and you should really strive to “snap” the weight to the locked-out position (it may not always look fast, but you should strive to do it fast!)

Exercise Tips

  • ” Retract and depress the shoulder blades when setting up
  • ” Lower the bar with speed and under control until the upper arm is flat on the floor

Floor presses will help your bench press by:

  • ” Improving lockout strength (specifically the triceps)
  • ” Getting heavy loads in your hands to increase confidence and prepare you for big attempts in a meet

Speed Bench

Simply put, SPEED KILLS! Whether it’s war, competitive sports, or powerlifting, if you are faster or more explosive than your opponents, chance are you will be more successful! Powerlifters in the last decade have dedicated quite a bit of training to improving their speed, and that’s a good part of the reason why all of our lifting records have been decimated! Beginners should stick to using straight bar weight, while the intermediate or advanced lifter may employ methods of accommodating resistance such as bands and chains into the equation.

Set-up

The set-up for your speed bench work should be identical to your competitive bench. Some of the key points here include getting a nice arch, “screwing” the feet into the ground, and pulling the shoulder blades back and down.

Performance

While it may sound simple, the point of this exercise to be fast! Far too often I see people struggling to move the weights, they are really doing themselves more harm than good. They are destroying the intended training effect, and wasting valuable training time to boot.

Speed benching should be explosive both down and up. By coming down fast, you potentiate the stretch-reflex and store massive amounts of kinetic energy. This energy will be stored and then utilized as you drive the bar back up to the top. All the other finer points of bench pressing apply here as well, but make sure you are fast both down and up!

Exercise Tips

  • Follow the set-up and technique points described above
  • BE EXPLOSIVE! Get the bar down fast and drive it up fast as well!

Speed bench will help your bench press by:

  • Teaching you to be faster and more explosive
  • Improving speed to help you drive through sticking points

Secondary Assistance Exercises

Secondary assistance exercises are usually performed later in your workouts for two reasons: 1) They aren’t as demanding on the neuromuscular system, especially when compared to the competitive exercises or primary assistance exercises, and 2) They are designed to focus on specific weak points which aren’t always addressed when performing the competitive lifts.

I will further break down the secondary assistance exercises into different groups so that you better understand the role each plays. These sections will include assistance exercises for the back, the triceps, and finally some of the other exercises and muscle groups you can train to improve your bench.

The Back

How many sets of bench presses have you ravaged your body with since you started training? If you are like most of us, it’s probably quite a few. Now, think about how many ROWS you have done. Chances are there’s a huge discrepancy between these two numbers. Many strength coaches feel that for every set of bench presses (or horizontal presses) you should perform a set of rows (horizontal pulls) to create balance around your shoulders. If you don’t care about your posture, strength or injuries, then by all means go to the next section. If you are interested in moving a maximal amount of weight while staying healthy, I suggest you read on and try out some of the rowing exercises I’ve listed below.

Chest-Supported Rows

While you need a dedicated machine to perform this exercise, I feel the benefits you get from it are excellent. I feel it’s often easier to go heavy on chest-supported rows versus bent-over rows, simply because you don’t have to worry about fatigue in the low back.

Prime movers

  • Latissimus dorsi,
  • rhomboids,
  • middle trapezius

Set-up

Lay face down on a chest-supported row machine. Make sure to let the arms hang loose and get a stretch before initiating movement.

Performance

From the starting position, pull through the elbows until: A) the bar supporting the weight hits the bottom of the chest pad, or B) you get your knuckles back to a point in-line with your chest. You want to emphasize a full ROM and squeezing the shoulder blades together. Squeeze and hold for a second at this point, then lower under control to the starting position. Let the weight hang at the start, and then repeat.

Exercise Tips

  • Pull through the elbows to use your back and not your arms
  • Squeeze the back at the midpoint of the movement, and get a good stretch at the beginning of each rep

Chest-supported rows will help your bench press by:

  • Giving you a stronger, more stable base to press from
  • Providing stability to the shoulder and keeping you injury free!

Supine Rows

Supine rows are a little known (yet brutally effective) exercise that blasts the middle and upper back. Another benefit is that it’s essentially a reverse bench press. You don’t need a dedicated machine; all you need is a power rack and some old-fashioned hard work!

Prime movers

  • Latissimus dorsi,
  • rhomboids,
  • middle trapezius

Set-up

In a power rack, place a bar across pins that are approximately hip height. Place a box or ball at the end of the rack to place your feet on. Place your feet on the box/ball and hang from the bar using either a supinated or pronated grip.

Performance

From the starting position, pull through the elbows until you chest touches the bar (this should be approximately where you take the bar when you bench; if you aren’t there, move forward or backward slightly until you are in this position). Squeeze at the midpoint, bringing the shoulder blades together, then lower under control to the starting position. Repeat as necessary.

Exercise Tips

  • ” Pull through the elbows to use your back and not your arms
  • ” Squeeze the back at the midpoint of the movement, and get a good stretch at the beginning of each rep

Supinated rows will help your bench press by:

  • ” Giving you a stronger, more stable base to press from
  • ” Providing stability to the shoulder and keeping you injury free!

Dumbbell Rows

Dumbbell rows are a great way to strengthen the muscles of the mid and upper back. Here at the Athletic Performance Center we teach it a little different, but our way allows you greater stability and the ability to move more weight. Not a bad deal, eh?

Prime movers

  • Latsissimus dorsi,
  • rhomboids,
  • middle trapezius

Set-up

Grab a dumbbell and place your non-working hand on an immovable object that is about mid-thigh high. Set-up by placing your non-working hand on the bench, bending the knees and pushing the butt back. The chest should be up and there should be a small arch in the lower back.

Performance

From the starting position, pull through the elbows to a point where the dumbbell is near the lower abdomen or waistline. Squeeze the muscles around the shoulder blade, and then return to the starting position. Make sure to get a good stretch at the beginning of each rep, and a squeeze at the midpoint.

Exercise Tips

  • Pull through the elbows to use your back and not your arms
  • Squeeze the back at the midpoint of the movement, and get a good stretch at the beginning of each rep

Dumbbell rows will help your bench press by:

  • Giving you a stronger, more stable base to press from
  • Providing stability to the shoulder and keeping you injury free!

If you like these back exercises, you can also try:

  • Face or rope pulls
  • Low cable rows
  • Bent-over rows

The Triceps

The triceps are one of the primary muscle groups you need to develop if you want to move serious weight in the bench press. The triceps are the prime movers in the second half of the bench press: The point where the elbows are bent to 90 degrees and up through to lockout. Below are just a few of the exercises you can use to develop your triceps.

Close-grip bench presses (flat bench, incline, and decline)

Close grips are one of the tried and true exercises when it comes to building big, strong triceps. Close grips are so effective because they lengthen the range of motion, which increases the amount of time that the triceps are heavily loaded. Performing close-grips on a flat bench are the norm, but I encourage you to mix up your training as there are benefits to all three variations of this great exercise.

Prime movers

  • Triceps,
  • pectoralis major,
  • anterior deltoids

Set-up

Lay on a bench press and grasp the bar with approximately a shoulder-width grip (anything closer tends to put excessive strain on the wrists). As with all other horizontal pressing exercises, the scapulae should be retracted and depressed throughout the movement.

Performance

Keeping the elbows tucked throughout the movement, lower to a point just below the nipples. From this position drive the bar up to the starting position. Make sure to keep the knuckles pointed towards the ceiling; this ensures you aren’t hyperextending your wrists and exposing yourself to possible injury.

Exercise Tips

  • Keep the elbows tucked throughout the movement
  • Keep the shoulder blades back and down to help prevent shoulder injuries

Close-grip bench presses will help your bench press by:

  • Strengthening the triceps and improving your lockout strength

Skullcrushers & Throatcrushers

Skullcrushers and throatcrushers are assistance exercises that focus on isolation of the triceps. Like their names imply, you better be careful when performing these, or at least make sure you have a solid insurance policy if you aren’t!

Prime movers

  • Triceps

Set-up

Lay on a bench press and grasp the bar with a grip that’s just inside shoulder width (Note: Dumbbells or an EZ-curl bar can also be used to take some stress off the wrists). Start with the arms locked and the weight over the eyes.

Performance

From the starting position, break at the elbows and lower the weight to a point just above the forehead or throat. The former version allows you to use more weight, while the latter really seems to hit the lower third of the triceps hard. From the midpoint position, flex the triceps and extend the weight back up to the starting position. You should focus on keeping the elbows pointed straight up and in tight when you are driving the weight up to the starting position.

Exercise Tips

  • Keep the elbows pointed up and tucked in throughout the movement

Skullcrushers & throatcrushers will help your bench press by:

  • Strengthening the triceps and improving your lockout strength

If you like these tricep exercises, you can also try:

  • Dips
  • JM Presses
  • Floor presses with dumbbells

The Rest of the Best

Above I’ve given you a pretty extensive list of assistance exercises to improve your bench. However, I’ve also left off quite a few muscle groups and exercises that can not only add pounds to the bar, but help in the process of keeping you healthy as well. Below is a brief listing of some of the other muscle groups that are related to bench pressing, as well as a few exercises that can help improve your bench:

Vertical Push Exercises
(Shoulder Exercises)
Vertical Pull Exercises
(Lat dominant exercises)
Forearms External Rotators
Behind Neck Presses Pull-ups Static grip work Shoulder Horn
Bradford Presses Chin-ups Wrist flexion/extension Muscle Snatch
Dumbbell Military Pulldowns (all types) Low Pulley External Rotation

The first three are fairly self-explanatory and most trainees should have some experience with some (or all) of them. The external rotators are a group of muscles that warrant more attention, and I will be dedicating a full-article at a later date to explain how important they are in keeping you healthy and taking your bench press to new-found levels!

Conclusion

The bench press is a favorite exercise among average gym-goers and powerlifters alike. Use the exercises I’ve listed above to not only keep your numbers going up, but your body healthy as well!

About the Author:

Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W., is the Director of the Athletic Performance Center (APC) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The APC offers sport performance training, injury rehabilitation, and personal training services to its clients. Mike received his Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University, has been a competitive powerlifter, and is the USA Powerlifting State Chair in Indiana. To contact Mike, please send an e-mail to [email protected]

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  1. hey mike, for correct technique, does the bar touch the chest when performing incline bench press? and if it does, at which point on the body?

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