The bench press is a valuable exercise for developing strength and size in the chest, shoulders and arms. Because it uses so many muscle groups, a lot of weight can be used – elite powerlifters have bench pressed over 700 pounds without assistive gear and 1,000 pounds with gear. The strongest bench press performance I have seen in training was in 1982 by a Soviet Greco Roman wrestler whose nickname was Captain Dianabol. At a bodyweight of 242 pounds (110 kg), he lifted 520 pounds (235 kg) for 5 sets of 8 with a 2-second pause at the chest.
For maximum benefit, you should plan to use several variations of this exercise – the flat bench is just one option – unless you are a competing powerlifter. I don’t recommend performing more than 20 percent of your training volume for pressing from a supine position.
First, let me make it clear that for a standard bench press I consider the proper grip is placing the hands so the index fingers are at biacromial width, which is the distance between the bony prominences on the top of the shoulders. Using a wider or closer grip is not worth considering, as these grips place too much stress on the shoulders. From that starting point, I’ll review a few variations of supine bench presses.
Off the recommended list are Smith machine bench presses and leverage machine bench presses (too stressful on the joints due to the restricted bar path), and horizontal bench presses with cables (intensity is too light due to instability). Let’s start with three variations using just a standard barbell.
1. Reverse-Grip Bench Press.
This variation is performed with the palms facing the athlete (supinated grip). This grip generally is easier on the shoulders and increases the emphasis on the triceps. It was popularized by super heavyweight powerlifter Anthony Clark, who broke the world record with this grip. This variation necessitates someone to hand out the bar.
2. California Press.
The California press is a hybrid movement: a cross between a close-grip bench press and a lying triceps extension. It’s a very popular assistance movement used in powerlifting circles, particularly by lifters who need to increase triceps mass and strength to bring their bench press poundages upward.
3. Partial-Range Bench Press.
I don’t prescribe this type of exercise very often, but it does have its value, especially for powerlifting. However, in grappling sports such as judo, I find this exercise useful to keep the opponent at arm’s length, thus improving defensive strategies.
By limiting the range of motion of the exercise (with a towel or board or by using pins in a power rack), you are able to overload the strongest position of the exercise. For powerlifters who use bench shirts, this type of variation is even more specific to their competitive lift, as the shirts assist with the start of the lift such that the end range actually becomes a weakness.
Next, let’s look at three variations that use attachments to the barbell to vary the resistance curve.
4. Bench Press with Lifting Chains.
Chains provide an even increase in resistance as the barbell is pressed off the chest; this enables the resistance curve to more closely match an individual’s strength curve. For convenience, I like lifting chains such as those distributed by Watson, a gym equipment company in the UK; the chains are attached with a collar so you don’t need to use an additional outside collar.
5. Bench Press with Bands/Bungee Bands.
I prefer bungee bands over regular bands for several reasons, but particularly because the tension can be more easily adjusted. These attachments teach the trainee to accelerate from the start. They are not as stable as chains and as such require some practice to master, so always use an alert spotter. Also, I would only use them one workout out of two, as using them too frequently tends to bring on tendonitis.
6. Bench Press with Eccentric Hooks
. Originally a Soviet concept and further developed by East German strength coaches, eccentric hooks allow you to increase the load during the eccentric portion of the exercise. When the devices touch the floor, their design releases the additional weight from the bar so you can complete the concentric phase of the lift. The best place to get eccentric hooks is FatGripz.com
Let’s finish off with four more variations that require special bars:
7. Thick-Bar Bench Press.
Although thick bars are associated with pulling exercises, they can also effectively increase pressing strength with the standard barbell. I have a variety of thick bars from Watson Gym Equipment at the Poliquin Strength Institute, but all of them have revolving sleeves because this design reduces the stress on the wrist and elbows. You can purchase them here.
8. Football Bar Bench Press.
The Football Bar is engineered to reduce stress on the rotator cuff during pressing movements by offering two different grip angles. One grip is nearly perpendicular to the bar frame and the other is parallel; the trainee can reduce rotator cuff distress by channeling stress in either of two selected angles. Watson makes a great model that has thick handles
9. Log Bench Press.
One reason that the log bench press is popular among athletes who compete in strongman competition is that their hands face each other when gripping the strongman log, instead of using the pronated grip required when using a straight bar. This is one reason I’ve often used the log press when training athletes, especially athletes who have a history of shoulder injuries. You can purchase a log press
10. Cambered Bar.
A cambered bar enables the user to perform bench presses through a greater range of motion, and was popularized by Mike McDonald, a powerlifter who broke world records in the bench press in four different bodyweight categories. Dumbbells will offer the same advantage, but the stability of the cambered bar enables more weight to be used, thus increasing the intensity of the exercise.
The barbell bench press is a valuable exercise, and certain worthy of the title of “king of upper body exercises.” However, don’t get stuck on just one variation, as the variety will ensure continual progress and an injury-free lifting career.