Ladies, So You Want to Bench 315?

TAGS: 315 bench, bench press for women, Emma Jarman, upper back strength, bench press

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Women and the bench press: It’s engrained in our early tadpole lifting brains we’re just not good at it. It’s not our fault, it’s just that we’re girls. We’re lower body dominant and aren’t built to bench. But that’s not true, as evidenced by several female powerlifters that bench 300+ (156 at the time of writing, 77 at 315+), and we’re not all SHW’s (only 32 of the 77-315+ benchers weighed more than 200 lbs). While genetics and musculature compared to males may play a role in disadvantaging women toward certain movements, just as with any other of the Big 3 we can work with our leverages and get better.


RECENT: Becoming of a Female Powerlifter


Admittedly, men can “muscle it up” a lot better than us girls can when it comes to benching. We have to be sharper, more thoughtful, precise and calculating when it comes to improving this lift. Holding a bar loaded with three plates over our faces can be downright scary so have a good handoff from a trusted spotter who will let you work for it and keep you safe. Preferably someone who believes in you even more than you believe in yourself. But ultimately us girls are great benchers, we just have to be smarter about unlocking it.

Now this isn’t a program, it’s not a list of recommended exercises or a time frame. It’s my advice based on years of mistakes, setbacks and “opportunities” to learn how to be a great female bencher.

Stop Telling Yourself You Can’t

You are your own biggest obstacle when it comes to improving bench press. Excuses run from “I’m just not built for it,” to “it really doesn’t matter as much as squatting or deadlifting,” to the ever loved “I don’t want to get too bulky” from increased upper body training. Shut those voices up and stay committed to your goal of improving your bench. If you’re making excuses before you even try, your priorities are not where they need to be. Don’t sabotage yourself focusing on a subpar environment, imperfect equipment or unrealistic progress deadlines. If you’re patient, motivated and committed, you can.

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It’s relevant to note here that while advice from strong male benchers is undoubtedly helpful, seeking advice from strong female bench pressers is invaluable. I believe bench press is more nuanced for the female lifter and tips and cues for women by women who have taken the time to learn, test and apply them can significantly accelerate progress.

Try Harder

Not many women love to bench press. Across genders, it is the most difficult lift, yields the least impressive numbers and lends the least to your total, and the ultimate goal is always to build a bigger total. Who wants to focus on improving their “hopeless” bench press when they can learn sumo instead and skyrocket their deadlift? When I go to a meet, however, and happen to be out deadlifted or squatted by another woman in my weight class, I can tend to easily make that up with bench press. So many women can pull in the upper 400’s or even into the 5’s but don’t bench more than the low 2’s. A 315 bench closes that gap quick. It’s worth putting effort into. Imagine if every female powerlifter put as much effort into weighted dips, dumbbell rows and pullups as they did RDL’s and goblet squats? Don’t look at bench days as midweek speedbumps between deadlift and squat workouts. Throw yourself into them. Push harder. Try harder. Eat more. Don’t be ashamed of starting small. Everyone starts small. The difference between you and anyone with a bigger bench press than you is they tried harder.

Plus, Instagram is saturated with ass. Start throwing up some “big back” selfies and I promise you’ll get just as many compliments and they’ll be way less creepy.

I must point out, trying harder isn’t just throwing weight around more aggressively. The bench press is technical. Learn leg drive, play with your hand positioning, study good bar path, learn how to arch appropriately and for god sake learn how to brace for it. Be a student of the movement. When you hit a great rep, bank it. Remember what it felt like and what you did differently—how the bar moved. Pay attention to what works for you: My lower back cramps when I bench high percentages because, I believe, of how I apply leg drive, so I wear a belt when I bench and it’s fixed the problem entirely; My upper and mid back are larger and much stronger than my chest, so I bench with a wider grip and am significantly stronger and more stable than with a closer “stance.” Even just one or two fingers in or out can make a huge difference [insert joke here]; I am tighter with my feet on my toes and nearly under my butt as opposed to feet out in front of me with my heels down. Pay attention to these things. Be mindful.

Specificity

Powerlifting is a 3-lift endeavor. One or two will usually feel good while another lags behind, then excitingly (or frustratingly) every once in a while they’ll musical chairs themselves into a new order of what’s going well and what’s dragging. I didn’t PR my deadlift on the platform for two years and no I don’t want to talk about it. But if you want to build one lift specifically it’s going to take extra focus and extra intensity.

For bench press, quite obviously, that extra focus should be on the upper body. Stop focusing on the butt stuff and start really applying yourself to the back/shoulder/technique work it takes to improving the bench press. There are plenty of manuals out there on programming and accessories to do this and that’s not what I’m here for, but do the stuff that sucks, stop thinking bench press is a chest exercise, build your back and for god's sake do what your coach tells you. I have a great wide grip bench press and I enjoy the exercise variation. My coach will likely be taking that out of my program after my deload next week and giving me dreaded close grip. I suck at close grip, I don’t enjoy it and it takes a lot out of me physically. I complain about it to no end. But I’m going to do it and I’m going to get better at it. I also bench 315. Embrace the suck.

Listen to Your Coach

I haven’t YOLO’d a lift since I hired a coach. I also rarely miss lifts. Maxing out is not strength-building, it’s strength-testing, so if your goal is to get stronger why the hell would you want to truly max out any more than at a meet? You need all the strength building time you can get, trust me.

Bench press for women especially can be an intimidating lift, which makes missing reps even more confidence-breaking. Trust your coach, so when it’s time to go for broke you can trust your training. Coaches are paid to be better than you at planning your progress. Tell your coach you want to focus on your bench and they’ll get you where you want to be (if you apply yourself to the program—try hard).

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I missed 225 four or five times before I ever eked it out just barely and without a pause. I didn’t have a coach, I would train for a few weeks, try it again and see if it was there yet.

I never missed 315. I went for it when it was time and when my training had prepared me for it. I attempted the weight when it was the next logical step in the progression of my coach’s orders. It wasn’t a YOLO, it was what came next. I was confident and I trusted my program, my progress and the effort I’d put into it all. I was reasonable, I tried hard and I listened to my coach. I got it because he told me to. I knew it was there and I took it.

Be Reasonable

If you can’t yet bench a plate and tell your coach you want 315 at your next meet and you’re going to try really hard, they’ll laugh at you. Maybe not to your face, but they will. Bench gains take time, they can be slow, incremental and frustrating. My first recorded bench press at a meet was 143.3 pounds in 2015. It took me 4.5 years to bench 315 in training (thanks COVID-19). That’s 172 pounds, so less than 40 pounds per year, most of which was put on in the first few years of newbie gains and is still what most may call a rapid increase. I thank my 20-some year swimming career for conditioned back and shoulders, and my bodybuilding stint for building the musculature and foundation to then “make strong” through powerlifting. Factoring that it’s taken a lifetime.

So be honest with yourself. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Set reasonable, attainable goals. A plate is a great place to start. Then, once 135 falls don’t jump into a quest for 225. This is a holy grail number for a lot of women and just about as attainable when you get impatient. A five pound bench PR is huge and can take damn near a year sometimes, especially when you’re reaching your strength threshold. Sometimes a little short-sightedness can really pay off in avoiding burnout.

This may all seem like generic advice or common knowledge, but it’s oft forgotten and all important. Against all odds, you CAN win meets with a good bench press, especially as a female in a sport that deprioritizes it in favor of the other “Bigger 2.” And let me tell you, I squat and pull well over 500 pounds but NOTHING has felt better or given me greater validation as a lifter than hitting that 315 bench.

Header image credit: © Jamie Miller Productions


Emma Jarman is a Cleveland, Ohio-based mother of one, amateur baker and writer. In her downtime, she works full time in marketing. Emma’s athletic background is in swimming and running with a short stint as a figure competitor. She entered the powerlifting community in 2015 and has since earned multiple pro totals and a top 10 ranking in the 181-pound weight class.

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