The bench press. Picture if you will, being pinned down on your back. A heavy object threatens to crush your chest, be it a falling tree, a large boulder or your primal ancestor gripping their flint tipped spear as some fearsome predator desperate to finish them off for good snaps and snarls down at their throat. All you can do in this instant is push, grab the foe and drive up and away from your body with all of your might. Such is the same with the Bench Press. A heavy barbell, weighed down not just with iron plates of countless kilograms but also your own fears and doubts that you will be able to get it back up once you commence the lift. You take a deep breath, hoist the weight from the rack, lower it to your chest and then PUSH. Push with all your might.

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That is the exercise, but what else other than bench can we do to make the lift stronger and why should you do more than just bench?

To answer the second part first, you should do assistance work in order to add power, control and endurance in the muscle you are using for the lift and to build more mobility and a stronger motion for the barbell as you lift it. The mobility exercises below will help to add more muscle fibre adding to the overall available power in each rep. Or they may help build stability in order to allow you to give a more focused drive throughout the rep and not waste energy in attempting to control or balance the path of the barbell from touching the chest to conpleted lift.

Here is my typical bench Press focused programme:

  • 10 minutes of stretching and mobility work
  • Bench press – 1-2 warm up sets followed by 3 sets  of 5, 3 or 1 repetitions 
  • Assistance movement 1 – 4 sets of 8 reps
  • Assistance movement 2 – 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Light stretching and occasionally some short cardiovascular work

What lifts do I use?

  1. Incline dumbbell press – this movement is good for several things when it comes to aiding your efforts to build a big bench press. Firstly it builds more muscle fibre to give you more bang for your buck with each rep. It also aids balance as each hand is loaded individually as opposed to the double handed grip of a barbell and this can allow for a more even pressing effort when it comes back to the barbell. I normally perform 4 sets of 8 reps with this movement right after my bench press to add more muscle activation and also continue to work on my pressing.
  2. Close grip bench press –this is a great way to build your triceps further for the bench press. Most of us have two main fail points with pressing exercises. Either the beginning which is all cheer or shoulders and the lock out portion which is predominantly triceps. By using a close grip option you can get lots of benefits. Firstly it forces the chest to work harder at the bottom and the triceps to work harder at the top portion of the lift so when you do the normal exercise you may find a more smooth effort is granted. Secondly it trains the triceps in almost a mirror image movement to the oft you are trying to improve. It is also still workin. As a compound lift rather than in isolation like say a triceps cable push down exercise. I would normally use this option as my first assistance move or as an alternative to the bench press. 4 sets of 5-8 reps.
  3. Dips – working on that deep triceps and chest drive again this is another great bench assistance exercise. It also is good for improving mobility of the shoulder and improving the overall endurance of the chest as it can be done both weighted and body weight for high reps. Normally I use this exercise last and do 3-4 sets of weighted sets for 10reps. Or I will do body weight to failure a few times. Just be carful to not over stretch or over weight your efforts to avoid shoulder or rotator cuff injury.
  4. Bent arm pull over – focusing more on building the chest, Lara and serratus muscles this exercise is great for adding stability and control to your lift whilst building a large frame and deep chest. I normally go for 4 sets of 8-10 reps and as the first assistance movement.
  5. Shoulder press – a little different as the chest isn’t really firing here but it provides the other main driving muscles. Shoulders and triceps as well as core stability and control providing you are performing a standing barbell / dumbbell press and not using a machine. I normally use this as the first assistance movement when I put it in the programme but I also have an overhead press day so it normally stays there instead but I can vary it and use it when I am focusing more on bench. 4 sets of 5-8 is my standard go to when using it for assistance work.

When choosing the right exercise it often depend on how I am feeling. If I am feeling good then a few heavier exercises like incline Dumbbells and shoulder press are the choice but if I am fatigued or sore then body weight or maybe even just stretching is my go to.

Remember also that the assistance work doesn’t have to be done on the same day as the main lifts and can also be used as a deload weeks training using perhaps body weight dips and push ups and some shoulder press work to help develop the chest and bench pressing muscles without overloading the joints or muscles for that week.

DEADLIFTS are up next so make sure to check it out. And if you missed it check out our SQUAT assistance work post from last week!

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