The Truth About Benching
Bench pressing with a straight bar sucks if you want bigger pecs. Hate me as much as you’d like, but take a look at the function of your pecs and you’ll start to see what I’m talking about.
That said, it’s still a valuable exercise for general strength. And it’s just a fact that bench pressing with a beautiful woman nearby gives you a testosterone boost. It’s science.
The thing is, super strong bench pressers often have a hard time putting mass on their pecs, and often, those with massive pecs don’t have the best bench numbers.
But you can get both. Here are three rules for building a respectable bench and a head-turning chest.
1 – Bench press for strength. Cable press for size.
The barbell bench press is great as a general strength-builder. And if it motivates you to hit the gym every Monday after a long weekend of Netflixing, then go for it. But it isn’t the ideal chest-builder for most.
There are some exceptions of course. Think of the newbie lifter who only has to touch a steel bar to start growing. But for most, the ego is the enemy, and adding more weight to the bar can take targeted tension away from the chest and onto other areas.
Bench press to build maximal strength. Then to get your chest growing again, choose exercises that load your pecs more efficiently and help you feel the squeeze.
You might not be able to lift as much, but even cable chest presses can do a better job at loading your pecs in their fully shortened position at the top of the press.
2 – Incline like a bodybuilder. Lay flat like a powerlifter.
Most people do their barbell bench pressing on a flat bench. This is a problem for size.
Sure, it allows you to puff your chest out, dig your shoulder blades down into the bench, drive with your legs, and lift the most weight up. And there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to lift the most weight, you need to optimize leverages, which a powerlifting-style of bench press will help you accomplish.
However, those who only use the flat bench tend to have pecs that look more like low-hanging man-boobs than a full chest. All the mass tends to be in the lower portion of their pecs.
This is because the flat bench and powerlifting-style setup actually aligns you in a fashion more closely related to a decline bench press. This hits the sternal and costal portion of your pecs (middle and lower chest) much more than your clavicular (upper) fibers.
Most smart bodybuilders know this, so when they DO bench press with a standard barbell, mostly opt for an incline. Not a big steep one, just a slight incline. Why? Because using a powerlifting-style setup on a low incline (around 15 degrees) will be more effective as far as your pec growth is concerned.
Here’s Coach Thibaudeau discussing this same idea but using dumbbells:
If you only have access to a flat bench in your home gym, just elevate it slightly on one end with a plate or two.
If you still want to bench press on the flat bench, do so with the intent to build strength and not size. Then, complement your flat bench presses with incline press and flye variations where you’ll be using more hypertrophy-based protocols.
This way you’ll get a bigger bench and you’ll have good overall chest development. There’s no point having a big bench press if you’ve just got ribcage showing where your upper chest should be!
3 – Rotate bars and heavy presses more frequently.
To build a bigger bench press you need to be benching frequently. The problem? To get the frequency needed to make strength and neural adaptations, it won’t leave you with much spare volume to build your chest.
That’s not to say you couldn’t do an entire powerlifting-style workout to optimize strength, immediately followed by a bodybuilding routine to optimize growth, but it wouldn’t be ideal. Not only would neither be “optimized,” but your joints would end up feeling like glass.
If you want to bench press frequently while still being able to do the volume required to build your chest, rotate your bench press variations more frequently. Systems like the Westside method do this very well.
The idea? A frequent rotation of bench press variations can help you put load across those tissues, but without subjecting those areas to repeated wear and tear.
If the vehicle you drive were to always be turning left then you’d expect your wheels to be worn more on one side than the other. It’s no different for your body using the same angles, grips, and joint movements.
Simply switching bars, grips, and ranges of motion will allow you to keep pressing heavy loads while giving your body a better chance of handling higher volume, muscle-building workouts. This variation does all three:
There are plenty of real-world examples of elite physique competitors using heavy bench presses to build impressive pecs. But your mistake would be assuming you’re the 1%, and not the 99% that’d do better following the above rules.