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Bench Pressing – The Lynchpin of Chest Training

The bench press is a core exercise for developing mass throughout the chest as well as upper body size, thickness, and strength.  For most people, there is no other upper body exercise that will allow them to lift as much weight as the bench press, so bench pressing has become quite a popular exercise among gym enthusiast and weightlifters.  From a bodybuilding perspective bench pressing is a compound exercise that engages not only the pectoral muscles (chest), but also the shoulders (especially the anterior/front deltoids), triceps, and even the back and legs.  If bodybuilders could only perform one upper body exercise, the bench press would be a popular choice.

However, many women do not incorporate bench pressing into their training program.  I think that a lot of women do not bench press because they have never tried it and are generally intimidated by the exercise.  I think they also do not realize how much weight they could actually press.  I can remember being in the gym many years ago, before I understood how heavy I can/should be lifting, and I was bench pressing the bar by itself (45 pounds).  Someone came over to me and said, “You do realize that you can press more weight than that, don't you?”  I had no idea that I could or should be training my bench press heavier, as I had no understanding at that time of the benefits of lifting heavy weight.  He proceeded to add 25 pound plates to each side of the barbell and spotted me, and it was much easier than I thought it would be!  That is when my love for bench pressing first began.

Incorporating bench pressing and regular, consistent chest training will benefit any woman’s fitness/training program.  Chest training, when combined with back training, can improve posture and preserve bone strength in the upper body.  Women can also strengthen and build the chest muscles that sit underneath and support the bust, which can lift natural breasts and give the appearance of a larger chest.  Chest training also helps to improve overall upper body tone.  Women who want a fitter, firmer chest should incorporate chest training into their program regularly.  Whether you are a powerlifter, bodybuilder, or a woman looking to tone and tighten your upper body, bench press can be the lynchpin of any chest training program.

The chest muscles consist of upper and lower portions that connect to the collarbone and the sternum.  A thick, well-shaped chest is a fundamental element of any winning physique and requires a variety of exercises to fully develop.  While training approaches can be quite variable depending on the goal (strength/size/tone), a thorough chest workout might be structured in the following manner:
Bench Press (4 sets):  The bench press builds mass and strength in the pectoral muscles, shoulders, and triceps.  Lie flat on a bench underneath a weighted barbell, un-rack the weight, bring it down to your chest, and press it back upwards.  Keep the weight in control during the entire exercise.

Incline Press (3 sets):  Incline bench presses help develop mass and strength in the middle and upper pectorals, as well as the anterior (front) deltoids.  Changing the angle of the bench puts extra stress on the upper chest, and most people are not as strong with the incline press as they are with the flat bench press.  The higher the angle (less flat, more upright), the more the deltoids are engaged.
Decline Bench Press (3 sets):  Decline bench presses engage the middle and lower pectoral muscles.  They are performed similarly to the flat and incline bench press, but the bench is angled downward, and the barbell touches the chest lower during the exercise.
Close Grip Bench Press (3 sets):  This exercise is performed similar to the flat bench press but with a narrower grip, which targets the triceps and inner chest more and trains the lockout (top) portion of the lift.
Flies (3 sets): Flies help to develop overall mass in the pectoral muscles and increase tone, muscle separation, and detail which can show well when you are low in body fat.  One of the primary functional purposes of the pectoral muscles is to allow the arms to be pulled inward and across the body, which is exactly the range of motion that is targeted in a fly exercise.  Flies can be performed on a flat, incline, or decline bench, standing with cables, and on chest fly machines, often referred to as “pec decks.”  There are a number of ways to perform flies, and variety can be added to any chest training program by incorporating different fly exercises.

Training chest with triceps is a popular approach because the chest exercises engage the triceps quite a bit.  Adding close grip bench press and perhaps one additional triceps exercise (rope extensions, push downs, dips – 3 sets) can make for a solid chest/triceps combination workout.  Variations on the chest workout can include pushups (a great chest exercise that engages the core), incline flies, and ribcage pullovers among other exercises.

The dumbbell (DB) bench press is a good alternative to the barbell bench presses and can be used to mix up your training routine.  DB presses allow for a full range of motion and engage the core for stability and balance.  For this reason, it is common that the weight used for dumbbell pressing is less than barbell pressing.  DB chest presses help develop coordination while allowing the muscles to take a break from the heavy lifting normally associated with the barbell press.  DB presses are most commonly performed on a flat bench or an incline, but decline benches can also be used, so dumbbells can easily substitute for all traditional barbell work.  Flat dumbbell presses help build your middle and outer chest muscles, while inclines focus more on the upper pectorals and anterior deltoids.

Your grip selection for bench press can also differ depending on your goals and can be modified frequently in your training program to provide more variety.  A wider grip targets the chest more and shortens the distance the bar must move (which increases the amount of weight you can press), while a narrower grip targets the triceps more.  Gripping the bar very wide will allow for you to really stretch the pectoral muscles during the eccentric part of the lift (negative), which can be very effective for training the outer pectorals.  Locking out the barbell at the top of a press with a narrow grip helps to develop the inner part of the chest.

Once chest training is incorporated into a workout routine, one of the biggest mistakes people make is overtraining.  Since bench press can be performed heavier than other chest and upper body exercises, it can lead to overtraining more easily.  It’s also one of those exercises that constantly challenges you to improve your numbers and lift heavier weights – it’s in our nature to want to go heavier and heavier.  But training smartly and avoiding overtraining is the only way to fully realize the benefits of bench pressing and to achieve your goals for strength, size, and muscular development. 

In addition to overtraining, shoulder injuries can result frequently from bench pressing, but can be minimized in the following ways:
•    Make sure you warm up properly before you bench heavy weights.  This will also help to prevent pectoral strains or tears.  Do not do too many warm-up sets though, or you will expend too much energy.  Find the right balance between warming up to avoid injury and doing too much, which will compromise how heavy you can go on your working sets.
•    Maintain good form.  In general, you should be lying on the bench in a balanced manner with your back arched, your entire body tightened, your shoulders and bottom planted on the bench, and you shoulder blades retracted.  Your feet should be placed flatly and firmly on the floor and should not move during the exercise.  The degree to which you arch depends on how comfortable it is for you and whether your goal is to lift big numbers (the more you arch your back, the less distance the bar needs to travel).  Your butt, shoulder blades, and head should always be in contact with the bench.  The bar should not tilt or sway during the exercise; instead, focus should be given on moving the weight in a consistent and balanced manner.
•    Train your back consistently with your chest so you do not end up with strength imbalances.  Pulling movements like rows, deadlifts, and pullups/pulldowns are all good exercises for training the back.  A strong back is necessary for a strong bench press as well!  Your back is the center of support for the weight as you lower it to your chest during the press.

Training your chest primarily for strength and power requires a somewhat different approach than training for overall muscularity and tone.  The bench press is one of the three exercises performed in powerlifting competitions (along with squat and deadlift).  While bodybuilding and general chest training focuses on overall muscle development through isolation exercises, powerlifting focuses more on technique, and exercises are more specific to achieving higher numbers, whether performing the lifts raw (no bench press shirt) or with equipment.

Regardless of your goals, bench pressing and chest training in general is likely to be a very important component of your training program.  Women especially should not shy away from chest training and bench pressing.  The benefits of chest training can be seen throughout all of the upper body, both aesthetically and in terms of overall strength and conditioning.  It is a critical exercise that is well worth investing the time and effort to learn proper form and technique – the work you put into your bench press will pay of in your numbers and your physique! 

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