2 variations for a bigger bench press
Once a friend's brother, after hearing that I lift, asked that age old question – the one carved next to Glykon's name on the Farnese Hercules, probably: how much do you bench? Making the schoolboy error of thinking this was an earnest question I answered with my max at the time. Which was half decent, more than you'll see at most commercial gyms, but nothing special.
With a smirk lasting just long enough to do the requisite mental arithmetic, he then relayed how his old school friend used to rep 250kg, at 90kg, at 15 years old... at 2% body fat, no less. Mentally adding this friend to the list of superhumans everyone seems to know but nobody ever catches on camera, I decided to outmanoeuvre this kind of thing in future.
So, here's 2 of the bench press variations I used to build my 600kg bench (when I was 12). They also helped the old me on the way to more modest numbers, and beyond.
Close grip bench
Standard bench pressing favours certain muscles over others, depending on the lifter's individual anthropometry. For torso dominant lifters this usually means the pecs and/or deltoids, which can leave the triceps lagging, creating a weak link in the press. Bringing the grip closer causes significantly more triceps activation (Barnett et al. 1995) (Lehman, 2005) leading to more strength and hypertrophy development.
Take note that close grip just means closer than your standard grip – most lifters should stop at shoulder width to avoid wrist pain.
A closer grip also limits shoulder abduction by bringing the upper arms closer to the body, which can be a relief to lifters with shoulder tightness or rotator cuff injuries (Lockie and Moreno, 2017), and more closely mimics sport specific movements like throwing a punch in MMA or doing a chest pass in basketball – meaning strength gains will translate more directly to better performance.
Close grip should be done as an accessory movement either after your main bench sets, or on a second bench day. Try them for 3-4 sets of 10 to hammer your triceps.
The board press involves placing one or more boards on the chest while bench pressing. Most lifters have a sticking point 3 to 6 inches off the chest due to a combination of factors, including the elbow's joint angle and the pectorals moving away from their relaxed length, causing a biomechanical disadvantage – see this previous article for a discussion of joint angles and muscle elongation. Board pressing addresses this by allowing you to overload the sticking point directly.
The beauty of board pressing is that it's athlete specific. While the 3 to 6 inches sticking point applies to most lifters, especially beginners, many trainees find they fail closer or further from the chest, due to weak pecs and triceps respectively. To address these weaknesses simply use more or fewer boards.
Traditionally board pressing is done with pieces of 2x4 held by a spotter. For a lighter and more portable option, which can be used solo, use Repboards. These high compression foam boards attach to either the bar or the chest for solo use, and are light and small enough to carry in a gym bag. Here's how to use them:
Feel free to go heavy on these. Another upshot of using the boards is that by limiting the range of motion you can use supramaximal weights, preparing your muscles, connective tissues, and mind to go beyond your old max when you take the boards away. Try sets of 3, 2, or even heavy singles (with a spotter) to take full advantage.
While standard benching should remain central to your training, these two variations are indispensable for addressing weak points and breaking through plateaus. For more bench tips check out Accommodating resistance: the bench press which highlights how to use bands and chains to take your bench to the next level.
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Barnett, C., Kippers, V. and Turner, P. (1995). Effects of Variations of the Bench Press Exercise on the EMG Activity of Five Shoulder Muscles. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 9(4), pp.222-227.
LEHMAN, G. (2005). THE INFLUENCE OF GRIP WIDTH AND FOREARM PRONATION/SUPINATION ON UPPER-BODY MYOELECTRIC ACTIVITY DURING THE FLAT BENCH PRESS. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3), pp.587-591.