Building the Bench, Piece by Piece

TAGS: Bench Against Bands, Two-Board Thumbless Close Grip Bench, Lat Pullover, Wide Grip Row with Pause, Seal Row, One-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press, DeFranco Pull-Apart, Barbell Overhead Press, pauses, upper body day, chest day, reverse band bench, spoto press, Dumbbell Press, shoulder strength, lats, chain flyes, triceps, tricep pushdowns, Joe Defranco, bench press

The bench press is a total body movement! That’s right, the exercise most seen performed on “chest day” or "upper body day" in the bodybuilding world actually requires the entire body to perform.

Despite what most people believe, every muscle needs to be activated in the performance of a proper bench press. The drive from the lower body transfers through a rigid core to all the prime mover muscles of the upper body. It is not uncommon to feel lower body fatigue and possibly even some soreness after an intense bench training session.

With that being said, for the purpose of this article I am just going to focus on the key upper body muscles. In particular I’m talking about the chest, shoulders, lats, and triceps. These are generally the muscles that jump to everyones mind when you think of the bench press. This is with good reason: these muscles do play the most significant role in executing a big bench.


RECENT: Five Bench Pressing Basics You’re Overlooking


It only makes sense that by building up these muscles that you will inevitably build up your bench press as a result. You will never see a big bench presser looking small in these areas. If they were, they wouldn’t be benching that much! So with the chest, shoulders, lats, and triceps as a focal point, I want to share my top three exercises for building up each muscle as it contributes to the bench. We are going to build the bench press piece-by-piece.

Chest

It only seems fitting that we begin with the chest, since popular belief is that it plays the largest role in a big bench. While I could make a good counter argument against that, truth is you won’t see a big bencher with a tiny chest — not going to happen! The chest is most active during the movement when the bar is on your chest and the pectoral muscles are put on full stretch. So the key to building the chest is to work in a full range of motion and to make sure we’re getting an adequate stretch of the pectoral muscles. I have seen great success with these exercises to build up this area as it pertains to bench pressing.

Spoto Press

This exercise was developed and coined the Spoto Press by former world record holding bench presser Eric Spoto. Spoto used this exercise in his training to help set the world record at 722 pounds. This exercise entails coming to a dead stop in the movement just above the chest before pressing back up. This is great for multiple reasons, the first being in order to stop and hold the weight above your chest you need to develop some serious stability. This exercise prevents you from trying to rest the bar into your chest and create false stability.

Another reason is that it takes away the stretch reflex for the movement. I’ll add that the Spoto Press is great to use with a 1-3 second pause. As a result of holding the weight isometrically for a few seconds off the chest, you cannot rebound as a result. The end product is a really strong and explosive concentric contraction, which is what you want in competition when you’re forced to pause. While I have this exercise listed as a great chest builder, it is important to note that it can be used as a great triceps builder as well. Pausing at various heights will dictate which muscles you are using most. I choose to do these to target my chest so I will leave very little space between the bar and the threads of my shirt.

Chain Flyes

Flyes for building a big chest? You better believe it! Chain flyes are no joke. The reason this variation of flyes is superior is the accommodating resistance of the chains. As you widen your arms the chains deload on the floor, providing you with a much safer way to stretch the pectorals. When you focus on the contraction of the chest to bring your arms together, the chains add weight where you’re the strongest and allow you to really get a great squeeze on the pectorals. There is evidence out there that getting a full range of motion stretch on a muscle provides stimulus for growth. It is important to utilize exercises such as these that provide you with the ability to stretch the muscle fully and safely.

Dumbbell Press

Dumbbells are a critical tool for building your chest up. I feel like these are highly underutilized nowadays with all the new free weight variations and machines that are available. Dumbbells have stood the test of time! Since dumbbells allow you to move more freely about the shoulder joint, they are a great pressing option for people with nagging injuries. If the barbell causes you pain, you can usually maneuver the dumbbells without any. The stability demands of these free weights create a whole new stimulus for growth, not to mention the multiple angles you can hit the chest with using dumbbells. Decline, flat, incline, and everything in between while getting a nice deep stretch in the chest are prime options for muscle building, which is why they must be included in my list.

Shoulders 

You will rarely see a lifter with a monster overhead press that has a poor bench. However, you will see lifters with a good bench that have very poor overhead numbers. What does that tell you? That shoulder strength plays a pivotal role in benching big. Time to start really training those shoulders! These exercises are sure to get the job done, and if you see your numbers increase with these, sure bet that your bench will go up as a result.

Barbell Overhead Press

I consider this the king of shoulder training and arguably one of the best training exercises, period. It doesn’t get more primitive than tossing huge weight over your head. If your barbell OHP goes up, it feels like every one of your other training lifts goes up as a result, including the bench. Any exercise that allows you to maximize the amount of weight being lifted is going to cause major muscle growth and strength gains, and that’s exactly what this does. Overhead press and overhead press a lot and you will start to see those “boulder shoulders” develop, as the bodybuilders say.

DeFranco Pull-Apart

Joe DeFranco is an amazing strength coach, and with good reason. His track record in developing elite pro athletes speaks for itself. He was particularly ingenious when he developed this banded shoulder movement. It is a new spin on the traditional band pull-apart exercise for the rear delts. Not only does this exercise hit the rear delts, but it hits the front and sides too, making it a well-rounded shoulder developer. Starting by standing in the middle of a light band, you first grab the sides of the band and do a front raise, then proceed to pull the band apart to your chest. I have yet to find a banded shoulder exercise that I like more than the DeFranco Pull-Apart as a staple in my shoulder training.

One-Arm Dumbbell Overhead Press

Here come those dumbbells again! For the same reasons they are excellent for developing the chest, they are equally as great for the shoulders. They allow you to train while avoiding nagging injuries, and they allow for a fuller range of motion. This particular exercise is a strongman staple. You often see strongmen in competition lifting the giant circus dumbbells overhead with one hand. Strongmen are some of the best overhead pressers out there, and we should take a page from their book on how to build rock solid shoulders! The uni-lateral dimension to this exercise allows you to expose weaknesses on one side of the body versus the other, which is a plus. They also act as a great go to shocking stimulus for shoulder growth when your barbell overhead press begins to plateau.

Lats

The lats are by far the most underrated component to the bench press. When a lifter truly understands the feeling of lowering the bar onto their lats, it is a complete game changer in terms of stability in the bench press and sparing the eccentric fatigue of the pressing muscles. Huge lats are a huge deal! They are a whopper of a muscle and can withstand very high frequency of training. It is not uncommon to see lifters training lats almost every session. The key in regards to the bench press is to train the lats similar to how they work during the bench. Keeping the same angles and grip widths is key.

Seal Row

It doesn’t get better than the seal row in terms of training the lats specific to their function on bench. The set up of the seal row is the exact opposite of the bench press. You are lying face down on a propped up bench and are rowing a barbell up to the bottom of the bench in the same location that you would touch a bench press to chest. It is an exercise that allows you to maximize the weight used and you will see a huge payoff in your back development. I will not go a training cycle without this exercise thrown in, it is money.

Wide Grip Row with Pause

You will often see this in the program for most if not all my clients. This movement can be done on a cable row machine or with bands. I prefer using the bands with a light dowel stick strung in between because I can get a great stretch while getting a hard contraction against the tension of the band. When I grip the dowel stick I make a point to use the same grip I’d use on bench and I touch to the exact point I drop the barbell to make it as bench specific as possible. The pause helps develop that isometric strength that is needed to stabilize the weight for the head judge’s “press” command in competition. This is definitely a great go-to lat exercise.

Lat Pullover

This is a hidden gem in my lat training for bench. You might be wondering how the lat pullover is specific to the bench, and that usually it is seen as a deadlift-specific back exercise. Well, I find this a valuable tool to simulate the positioning of the barbell out of the rack. When you receive your hand-off and guide the bar down into position, you need to be fully in tune with your lats. If you use even the slightest amount of shoulders to pull the bar out, it will throw off your ability to engage the lats later on and will likely ruin your shoulder tuck on the bench. I tell clients to think of the “guiding the bar out” process as a lat pullover. It only makes sense to train the lats in this fashion and it can actually be pretty brutal! Again, I use the dowel stick and bands for this exercise but any cable machine works good too.

Honorable Mention — Reverse Band Bench

I can’t talk about lats and the bench press without mentioning the beauty of the reverse band bench. The only reason this exercise wasn’t included is because I believe this is a better technique developer than mass builder and this article is about building mass in the necessary areas. However, you should not forgo this exercise in your lat training. It is one of the best overall exercises for bench training, and many high level bench pressers would recommend it.

Triceps

Remember when I said earlier that I could make an argument that the chest isn’t the most critical muscle involved in the bench? Well, this is the muscle group I’d make the argument with. The triceps provide that acceleration through the bottom position to completion of the lift. For an equipped bencher, the triceps are everything! Look at a world record holding bench presser’s arms and you’ll know what I mean!

One-/Two-Board Thumbless Close Grip Bench

This exercise is a mouthful to say but there are some critical pieces here that make this my favorite tricep builder, first being the addition of the boards (you can also use a shoulder saver pad, or Bench Blokz). When you close grip bench, there comes a point where elbow flexion stops occurring and your chest begins to be stretched and comes into play. Well, aren’t we trying to focus on triceps development here? That’s why I will always close grip bench to a 1-board or something similar. I keep the tension and focus on the triceps at all times.

The thumbless grip is important as well because it takes away some of the stability via the shoulder joint and the lat by reducing the lifter's ability to torque into the bar. This allows you to put that much more focus into lowering the weight eccentrically with the triceps. I will also note that I usually perform this exercise feet up on the bench as to eliminate leg drive. I love this exercise and if a client is weak in the triceps you better bet that I’ll be having them perform it.

Bench Against Bands

On the bench press, bands reign supreme. While some may prefer chain links for accommodating resistance, I feel for most they do not provide enough weight differential at the top and bottom. Someone like myself with shorter arms might only move 2-3 chain links off the ground. The bench range of motion is much shorter than the squat and deadlift. Properly rigged bands will provide that weight differential for lifters regardless of limb length and range of motion.

Myself and others that I have spoken to prefer the feel of bands when it comes to engaging the triceps. With the right band tension you can make the lockout of the press very difficult. This works the triceps hard and is very specific training for the lockout portion of the bench. If you struggle with lockout for the bench press, this exercise is a must! I recommend finding the right tension so that you need to fire the triceps hard through lockout but not so much that it beats up the elbows from excessive grinding. More tension is not always better; it can potentially injure you over time. Remember, we want to teach proper firing of the triceps through completion of the lift, not make each rep a max effort lockout.

Tricep Pushdowns

Pushdowns are a great movement because there are endless variations, angles, and loading schemes involved with them. The possibilities are endless and the only limiting factor is the imagination. You can do pushdowns with ropes, V attachments, various straight bar attachments, with a supinated, neutral, or pronated grip, and with bands or cables. You can go heavy and use momentum to work a strong elbow lockout, or eliminate momentum and focus on the contraction to build the triceps. The word "pushdowns" is an open-ended book and you can experiment in many different ways. The best tricep pumps I get are with some type of pushdown movement. They are golden for building up those triceps. Your bench press will thank you.

You now have 12 of my top upper body exercises to work with. These exercises have all been crucial in my journey to bench pressing 600 pounds. I have used them with numerous clients and they have all hit new personal records. These exercises work, and they work well! Give them some time and not only will you see yourself getting bigger, but you will see that bench press increase.

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