Different bench press techniques elicits different muscular results

Featured Strength Equipment: weight bench, barbell, weight plates, dumbbells, Olympic bar

Every athlete assumes that they know everything there is to know about bench pressing – what could be easier? You lie down on the weight bench, take the barbell and weight plates off the bench uprights, lower the barbell or dumbbells to the chest and then push upward. This is not rocket science; what is the big mystery about bench pressing? Those in the know understand that there are an unbelievable number of bench press variations and the sharp and savvy lifter will use specific bench techniques to elicit specific muscular responses.

This is subtle stuff; by shifting the grip width a few inches one way or the other, by shifting the elbow position ever so slightly, by shifting the touch point on the chest, by changing the bar speed, by altering the pathway of the lowering, by altering the pathway of the push, you are able to dramatically alter the muscular effects – and we haven't even touched on the gigantic universe of sets and reps and programing.

It is critical that the serious athlete understand and be able to identify what muscular effects are elicited by the different bench press techniques. By having an arsenal of bench press techniques at your fingertips, when staleness and inertia begin to appear, you are able to skillfully change exercises and skillfully vary rep ranges and exercise techniques. Remember this truism: radical strength increases always beget radical increases in muscle mass. To grow huge pecs, gigantic front delts and titanic triceps, build a monster bench press!

Grip width: In the classical barbell bench press there are, generally speaking, three grip widths; wide, medium (or normal) and narrow. The wide grip is all "pec," whereas the narrow grip divides the muscular effort, more or less evenly, between the pecs, front delts and triceps. The medium width grip, also called the ‘normal' grip, offers the best of both worlds. The normal width grip will have a 60/40 division of muscular effort between the pecs (60% of the effort) and the front deltoids/triceps (40% of the push effort.) The medium grip width should be your default grip, the grip used most often.

  • Medium grip: also known as the ‘power grip' this is the grip width you should use 60% of the time. Regardless of your height, the medium grip width is slightly wider than shoulder width. For most individuals the medium width grip will be the most powerful of the three grip widths.
  • Wide grip: use this grip width 20% of the time; take a grip one hand width wider (on each side) than the normal grip width. Ergo, if your normal grip width is 26 inches, a decent grip width for a man standing 5-10, the lifter would take a wide grip of roughly 30 inches.
  • Narrow grip: use this grip width 20% of the time; take a grip width one hand width narrower than normal width. A 26 inch regular grip would be narrowed to roughly 22 inches. All grip widths are measured forefinger to forefinger.

Pull the bar downward: One of the biggest mistakes made in bench pressing is to simply relax the muscles on the descent, the lowering, of each rep. Novice bench pressers will relax and allow gravity to pull the weight downward. Then at the bottom of each rep the lifter reengages his muscles and pushes the barbell upward; this is very inefficient and sloppy. The preferred method is to pull the Olympic bar downward, exerting muscle tension to slow the descending weight in a deliberate fashion. You get the amazing muscle-building/strength-infusing effects when you create a resisted negative rep. Negatives build tension, like a coiled spring, which makes for a mightier push. Pull benches downward in a slow and deliberate fashion: flex the triceps and the lats as you lower. Pull downward with great deliberation. A tension-infused lowering sets you up for the perfect push.

Inhale while lowering, exhale at the top of each bench press rep: This is simple stuff but you would be amazed how many trainees get this ass-backwards. At the start of the rep, commence an inhalation. Inhale as if you were trying to suck all the air out of the room. The idea is to time the inhalation so that you are maximally inhaled just as the weight touches the high point on the chest. This is a timed inhalation (often followed by a pause) and then the start of the upward push. As the barbell or dumbbells approaches lockout, exhale. Releasing the air too quickly as you push upward causes the athlete to lose muscle tension. Inhale maximally using timing; start the deliberate exhalation at the point where the triceps start to engage. Breathing is critical.

Barbells versus dumbbells: Insofar as the payload motor-pathway, the dumbbell bench press closely resembles a narrow-grip barbell bench press. The advantage of using dumbbells is that they force each arm to carry its fair share of the total payload. Studies have shown that with a barbell bench press the dominant arm usually exerts more force than the weaker arm, creating (over time) muscle imbalances. The solution is to regularly include some dumbbell benching. Each arm has to carry its fair and equal share when using dumbbells. Another dumbbell strategy is to allow the bells to sink slightly below the level of the chest at the bottom of each rep. This creates a ‘pre-stretch' and is excellent for building slabs of pec muscle. Dumbbells, expertly used, will blast you past any and all bench strength plateaus. The pause-and-sink dumbbell bench press is a peerless pec-builder.

To pause or not to pause, that is the question: Most bodybuilders do not pause when benching. The ‘touch-and-go' bench starts with a freefall lowering followed by a slight rebound off the chest. The "bounced" rep is the most commonly used technique: through the use of a controlled bounce, the bencher is able to create upward momentum that enables them to handle 10% to 30% more than if forced to pause weight on the chest. A man that bounces 225 for 10 reps will likely be taxed by 185 for 10 reps if those reps are now paused.

Ban the Bounce: Bounced reps create a zone of muscle-building nothingness; from the time the relaxation commences and the barbell free-fall begins, until whenever the bouncing bencher reengages the pecs, delt and tri muscles on the upward push – nothing of any muscular benefit is occurring. For this reason, give paused reps a try – no need to hold the weight on your chest for 5-seconds on each rep – just stop the bar on the chest for the briefest of instants before pushing the poundage upward. Pause benching is an ego flattener and a muscle builder. Get with the pause and ban the bounce. The paused rep program builds pure bench press power and whenever new power is acquired muscle mass is sure to follow.

Differing rep speeds for differing effects: There are three separate and distinct rep speeds: regular, grind and explosive. Regular rep speed is the rep speed we use during benching without thinking about it. When we use ‘regular' speed, we allow the unconscious or subconscious to push the weight at whatever speed it deems appropriate to accomplish the muscular task. We seize back control from the subconscious when we decide to use a purposeful grind or to purposefully explode a rep.

A grind rep is a purposefully slowed rep. Dorian Yates was forced by injury to shift from an explosive rep speed (his preference) to grind speed. He had incurred a series of injuries that forced him to abandon explosion. In retrospect, Dorian feels it turned out to be a blessing in disguise; he achieved his all-time best size and condition when forced to shift to grind. The third type of rep speed is explosive, and as the name implies, you push or pull the concentric portion of the rep as fast as possible. Explosive reps have long been thought to "carry over" to athletics. The elite will shift back and forth between grind and explosive, periodically, to reap maximum benefits from both styles.

Barbell touch points: Not too much to discuss here. Most novice lifters don't give touch point too much thought and allow the barbell or dumbbells to touch too high up on the pecs, too close to the neck. Bench press masters, world record holders with incredible pec development, all touch the bar or bells on the highest point of the chest – and they will arch their spine to create an even higher touch point. The more inflated the chest (remember the huge breath we take on inhalation?) the more extreme the arch, the higher the touch point. It all combines to shorten the distance the lifter has to push the bar. The more we create a decline bench by arching and inhaling the stronger the push.

Use your newfound arsenal of bench press techniques to shake things up: let's get serious and let's start training the bench press like the big boys do. To grow monstrously strong, to build chest, shoulders and arms we need to build a big bench.

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.