There are two ways you can improve your bench press: by improving your technique and by improving your strength. In this article, I will be covering the unique methods used by top lifters to improve technique and strength and ultimately improve bench press totals.
Changes in technique will improve bench press poundages much more dramatically than changes in strength. It is not uncommon for a lifter to put on 10 to 30 pounds on his bench press in an afternoon simply by improving up his form.
Since the topic of technique is very lengthy, I have dedicated a separate portion of the site to that subject. Read this article on bench press technique for specific information on improvements you can make to your bench press form.
Improving your strength consistently is key to improving your bench press. You can build strength to improve bench press ability by two ways: by building muscle or by improving neural connections.
Building muscle is a very straight forward route to improving your bench press. While there are a lot of different factors that contribute to muscle growth, we know for sure that the most important factor for building muscle is caloric intake.
Naturally, the other major contributor to building muscle is weight training. The truth is that there are a lot of different factors that contribute to muscle growth and we do not yet know the exact cellular trigger for muscle growth.
As far as training goes, it seems one of the major triggers for muscle growth is a function of lifting a moderately challenging load (65 percent of your 1 rep max or higher) for a certain volume (weight x reps x sets).
It is a pretty simply relationship; if you want to improve your bench press, you need to eat more and use enough volume with a moderate to heavy weight. Eating more will provide you with the calories you need to build muscle. Performing the classic sets of ten with a moderately challenging weight will provide the stimulus for building muscle. In the long run, this extra muscle will add pound after pound to your bench press.
Improve Bench Press via Neural Factors
This method for improving your bench press is typically overlooked, yet most lifters will realize their biggest gains by focusing on this area. Did you know that most people can only contract about 25 percent of any one of their muscle’s fibers at one time a time? And that with practice this number can be practically doubled?
In other words.. did you know the average lifter has the capacity to double the weight they can lift without building any muscle?
The truth is that your body cannot maximally contract a single muscle group. In fact, it seems that the average lifter can only contract about about 25 percent of the muscle fibers in a muscle at any given time. A trained lifter can contract 35 to 45 percent.
This may seem unusual, but here are some things to think about. The human body’s connective tissue and bone structure cannot support a contraction of 100 percent of its muscle fibers. This type of contraction happens when someone is electrocuted or struck by lightning.
When someone is electrocuted, the lightning-struck person often suffers dozens of bone fractures. Why? Because when lightning strikes a person, it simulates the nervous system signal for muscle contraction. The person’s muscles then contract at maximal capacity, and the sheer force of that intense muscle contraction is enough to cause fractures and rip tendons right off the bone.
How does this relate to the gym and ultimately an improved bench press? Have you ever seen a trained powerlifter (or just a guy who likes to lift heavy weights) that can bench press ridiculous amounts of weight despite “not looking very big”? I am sure we have all known or seen a lifter that is able to handle weights much heavier than the lifter looks like he can handle.
In this situation, the lifter is very efficient at using his own muscle mass. A trained lifter might be using an upwards of forty-five percent of his muscle fibers during a max bench press, whereas the average lifter might be doing half of that. This explains why a 165 pound guy might be benching 400 pounds whereas another 165 pound guy with a similar build might only be able to handle 200 pounds. This first lifters is “neurally efficient”.
Now that I have your attention, I will discuss a few techniques you can use to improve your neural efficiency and ultimately move more weight.
Training at 90 percent or more of your one rep max:
One of the easiest ways to improve your bench press is to bench press with a very heavy weight for single reps. Be careful not to over-do it though; working up to a max 1 to 5 rep set once per week to start off your workout is plenty of volume.
After a few months, be sure to take a few weeks off from heavy pressing, as the nervous system fatigues from heavy lifting just like your muscles fatigue during a high rep set.
Another method you can use is to lift explosively. Explosive lifting forces the nervous system to go from no contraction to maximal contraction in a very short time and is great for getting more strength out of the same muscle mass. Control your eccentrics (the lowering phase) and lift as fast as you safely can during the concentric (lifting phase) of the lift.
Finally, supramaximal holds can be another great way to improve your maximum pressing capacity via neural improvements. A supramaximal hold involves loading up the barbell with about ten percent more than you can max bench press, getting a lift-off, and then holding the bar in the locked out position for about 10 seconds and then racking the bar.
To recap, you are literally just holding a barbell with more weight than you can bench press in the locked out position. Make sure you have a spot (or two if you are a strong guy) when attempting a supramaximal hold. Getting comfortable with holding a heavy weight is a great way to convince the nervous system to allow you to use more of your muscle mass when benching.
You now have quite a few methods you can use to improve your bench press. Perfect your technique, eat more, build some muscle, and then teach that muscle to fire maximally and you will be able to significantly improve your bench press!