Want to build a massive set of pecs, front delts and triceps?
Build a massive bench press!

How best does the conscientious bodybuilder set about creating lean muscle mass? One sure fire way to grow a targeted muscle (or muscle group) significantly larger is to make that muscle significantly stronger. Want bigger legs? Add 100-pounds to your squat. Want a big back? Build a big deadlift. Want significantly larger pecs, front delts and triceps? Build a big-ass bench press. Add fifty pounds to your bench press and you will invariably break through the next level of muscular development. There is an irrefutable relationship between strength increases and muscle size increases. Bodybuilders need exploit this relationship.

Identify the goal, simplify the training menu: if the goal is to add an appreciable amount of new muscle to the chest, delts and triceps, building a big bench press is the solution. Let us define “big bench.” If you are a bodybuilder that has been benching loose and sloppy and suddenly you get strict and serious, in ten weeks, 70 days, you can realistically expect a 20% increase in your strict bench press maximum single rep. A 20% jump in benching capacity is huge: a 200-pound max bench soars to 240, a 300-pound bench skyrockets to 360. The caveat is that the 20% increase is over your best strict effort at the beginning of the ten weeks – if you belly-toss 275 but can only strict bench 225, the 20% increase in ten weeks is over your best strict bench press poundage.

The first order of business is to shift from a volume-based bodybuilder template to an intensity-based powerlifter style template. We drastically reduce the number of chest exercises performed. Classically, the bodybuilder purposefully uses a wide repertoire of chest exercises in order to “attack the muscle from a variety of angles.” Arnold, at his peak, performed six chest exercises for his chest totalling 32 sets, he did this three times per week, 96 sets per week for chest alone. His was the epitome of volume training. By way of comparison, six-time IPF world champion Kirk Karwoski, a man with a 600-pound raw bench press weighing 270, performed a total of nine sets of flat bench press and three sets of incline bench presses once per week. His was the epitome of minimalistic intensity training.

To build a big bench press you essentially “just bench,” completely drop all the dumbbell flyes and pec dec, all the decline benches and machine bench pressing. We exchange training volume for training intensity. We seek to do fewer things better and these fewer things done better are done less often and far heavier. By exclusively benching we become extremely proficient at benching: we use every rep of every bench press set as an opportunity to hone technique.

Coordinate the nutrition: It would make no sense to embark on a bench press specialization program while engaging in a lean-out nutritional phase. Ideally, optimally, a bench specialization program is coordinated with a mass-building nutritional approach. The plan is to add lean muscle mass over a ten week time period. Each week you grow slightly larger, each week you grow slightly stronger. Systematically and methodically we use the anabolic effect of regular food to maintain continual positive nitrogen balance. We eat slightly more food each successive week; quality nutrients taken abundantly accelerate recovery and fuels muscle growth. Source “clean” calories from lean protein, fiber carbs, natural starch carbs and potent nutritional supplements.

In our illustrative hypothetical example, the food selections are cleaned up and the calories reduced to commence the “cycle.” Each week we slightly and systematically increase calories over the initial “jump in” level. By eating clean and cleaning up dietary content, caloric increases are used to “build the metabolism.” Over a period of weeks, clean eating and intense exercise turn a sluggish metabolism into a raging inferno. Cardio is critical. Aerobics insure weight gain is lean muscle and not laden with an unacceptable amount of body fat. You are a bodybuilder – not a beer-swilling pizza eating powerlifter.

How to increase your bench press 20% in ten weeks

Assume our hypothetical intermediate level athlete/bodybuilder stands 5-8, weighs 160 pounds carrying a 12% body fat percentile. He has a strict, paused single-rep (current) best bench press of 225. The bench press sets and reps under the “bench” column are done after 2-3 warm-up sets. All bench presses are paused on the chest and fully locked out at the top. Bodyweight is listed in column #2, daily caloric intake is under Kcals; the number of meals eaten per day in column #4 and number of weekly cardio sessions and session length are listed in the cardio column.

Bench Bwt. KCals Meals cardio
Week 1 175 1 set of 8 160 2,000 3 3x30 min
Week 2 180 2 sets of 8 161 2,000 3 4x30 min
Week 3 185 3 sets of 8 162 2,500 4 5x30 min
Week 4 205 1 set of 5 163 2,500 4 6x30 min
Week 5 210 2 sets of 5 164 2,750 5 4x35 min
Week 6 215 3 sets of 5 165 2,750 5 5x35 min
Week 7 235 1 set of 3 166 3,000 5 6x35 min
Week 8 240 2 sets of 3 167 3,000 6 4x40 min
Week 9 245 3 sets of 3 168 3,500 6 5x40 min
Week 10 255 1 set of 2 169 3,750 6 6x40 min
Totals 270 x 1 170 4,000 6 4x45min

Body fat: start of cycle = 12% end of 10 weeks = 9%

Bench Press specialization routine

Saturday
Power grip bench: work up to scheduled sets and reps for the workout
Wide-grip bench: reduce periodized poundage by 20 pounds, rep out one set
Narrow-grip bench: reduce periodized poundage by 30 pounds, rep out one set
Lying triceps press: 1x10, 1x8, 1x6 use 50% of narrow grip bench poundage

Wednesday
Dumbbell bench press: work up to one controlled set of 8 reps, paused
Dumbbell 45-degree incline press: work up to one controlled set of 8 reps, paused
Weighted dips: 2 sets, 6-8 reps; then drop the weight and rep to failure
Triceps pushdown: 1x10, 1x8, 1x6, 1x12

Work legs and shoulders on a separate day - work back and biceps on a separate day

Self-inflicted Bench Press amnesia: The first step in building a big bench press is to start by forgetting everything you think you know about bench pressing. Then rebuild your bench press from the ground up. Most every bodybuilder that bench presses does something drastically wrong; most bench sloppy in order to handle more ego-stroking poundage. When a man benches sloppy he can handle a lot more weight, great for ego gratification and showing off, but deficient when it comes to building muscle mass. The biggest sin seen at any commercial training facility is the partial rep bench press; if you don’t lower the weight all the way to the chest and if you never lock reps out you can handle a hell-of-a-lot more weight: partial reps yield partial results. The bounced bench press is also very popular. Raising the butt off the bench during the sticking point turns a flat bench into a much easier decline bench press. These are all ways in which to make bench-pressing easier. Look for ways to make bench-pressing harder.

Swallow your ego, go back to zero: as a bodybuilder, you really don’t care about having a big bench press for the sake of having a big bench press. What the bodybuilder does care about is creating muscle mass. When you bench, slow things down and tighten things up; bench presses done right take intense concentration and demand extreme attention to detail. When you commence strict benching, you will see training poundage plummet. Do not be bothered by this because you will experience a simultaneous increase in muscle mass. Work the targeted muscles over a full and complete range-of-motion, institute pauses and hard lockouts; do so and the depth of the muscular inroad is optimized. You will get a whole lot more results using a whole lot less weight.

Techniques and Tactics

Big benching starts with the feet and body position: Big league bench-pressing starts with a precise placing of the feet: there are dozen different bench press foot and leg placement technique philosophies; the most fundamental, elemental and effective is to dig in the flat feet into the floor, knees over ankles, all the while maintaining leg tension. Establish an arch, you bench 10% more if the torso is angled into a distinct decline. With feet and shoulders pinned, arched, lower the Olympic weight bar while exerting muscle tension. Pull the bar downward during the negative portion of the bench rep. Touch the bar or bells on the highest point on the maximally inflated chest, just below the pecs. Pause for a second then commence the upward push phase. When encountering sticking-point resistance during the push phase, allow the bar and Olympic weight plates to drift slightly rearward approaching lockout; this lessens the triceps burden. On every rep flex triceps to the point of cramping.

Lower the bench press payload with tension and resistance: Regardless if you are using dumbbells or barbells, don’t bench like an amateur and relax the muscles to facilitate the lowering of the weight. Bench pros pull the weight downward; they exert muscle tension and resist every inch of the lowering; this facilitates precise positioning. By resisting the negative, we build muscle. The weight is lowered with tension until it touches the arched, fully expended ribcage. Don’t make the lowering ridiculously slow, the ideal lowering speed is “barely slowed,” just enough to induce muscle tension. The weight is paused for an instant on the chest then pushed upward to arms lengths. Use one of these three “push” speeds: purposefully slow (grind,) normal, or purposefully accelerated (explosive.) Those that don’t resist the lowering throw away all the muscle building, strength infusing attributes of a perfect negative rep.

The three grip widths: The “power grip” or “regular grip” width is slightly wider than shoulder width. For 80% of humanity, this will be their strongest bench press grip width. For 10% a narrower grip is stronger, for the other 10%, a wide grip is superior. The wide-grip is one hand width wider than the power grip. The narrow-grip is one hand width narrower than the power grip. Three grip widths, wide, narrow and normal are mixed and matched. The optimal bench press bar pathway is a gentle arc: the elite bench presser breaks his elbows to begin the rep with the bar over his eyes; they lower in a downward arc to the highest part of the chest. Pause for an instant then push upward, perfectly mirroring the lowering arc.

The Five Progressive Iterations of Bench Pressing

  • The dumbbell bench press: Dumbbells force each arm to carry 100% of the assigned payload. Dumbbells maximally stimulate muscle stabilizers, which, from a muscle building, strength-infusing viewpoint, is highly desirous. An expert bodybuilder can allow dumbbells to sink below the level of the chest at the start of every rep; this “pre-stretch” tactic is maximally effective. Muscles are pre-stretched at the start then maximally contracted by reps end. Dumbbells inherent awkwardness makes “light weights heavy.”
  • The narrow-grip bench press: The perfect transition from dumbbells to barbells is to commence barbell bench-pressing with a grip that replicates the dumbbell motor-pathway. Take a shoulder width grip. This narrower grip “spreads” the workload relatively evenly amongst pecs, front delts and triceps. The narrow grip bench press flies off the chest and stalls at the top; narrow grips are difficult to lock out because they overload the triceps.
  • The moderate or power grip bench press: This is the bench press grip width most lifters will find to be their “strongest” bench grip. Take a grip width one-hand width wider than the narrow grip. As you lower the elbows should be tucked inward and not allowed to flair out wide. Avoid flaring during lowering or pushing. Elbows are pulled down and in to allow triceps to “bottom out” atop flexed lats. Pause the barbell for a split second on the chest before pressing it to a full and complete lockout.
  • The wide grip bench press: The wide-grip bench press uses almost nothing but pectoral muscles. The wide-grip needs to be done with great precision and care. Hands are positioned one hand-width wider than power grip. Use a barely slowed lowering followed by a perfect bar positioning on the chest. The wide-grip bench is hardest coming off the chest (for the first six inches) but is relatively easy to finish. The wide-grip bench press is the KING of all pec-building exercises.
  • The touch-and-go bench press: only after mastering paused bench pressing should the bodybuilder experiment with touch-and-go benching. If you bounce a barbell off your chest, catch the rebound and take advantage of upward momentum, the rep is made easier; you have made a heavy weight light. The touch-and-go bench press should be used as an overload tactic. Use T&G sparingly and it will stay effective, the logical follow-up to a successful period of pause benching that is starting to go stale.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.