If you took a poll at your gym on what was their favorite exercise, most would likely say the bench press. You might find a few masochists who would say squats or deadlifts, and some might say barbell or dumbbell curls. But the vast majority would definitely say the good, old bench press. It is the king of upper body exercises, and why not? You get to lie down on a padded flat bench and lift heavy weights in relative comfort. What more could a bodybuilder ask for?
Most bodybuilders take pride in how much they can bench. Who can deny it’s a boost to your ego to lift 50 to 100 pounds more than your body weight after just a couple of years of training? Most advanced bodybuilders can bench double their body weight for 8 – 10 reps and multiple sets. Bench presses are the number one exercise for increasing the size and thickness of the pecs. They also build the triceps and anterior deltoids at the same time.
A few months of heavy benching can transform a person’s upper body. No other upper body does so much for one’s physique. Benching is fun! The type of painful and nauseating “I’m going to throw up at any minutes notice” hard work done on squats, deadlifts, power cleans, bent over barbell rows and t-bar rows isn’t experienced. Nor do you experience the white hot burn in the pecs as you do when doing calf and forearm work. The bench press is a much more pleasant and enjoyable type of training. It just seems less painful to do bench presses to make the pectorals grow than other muscle groups.
NOT AS EASY AS THEY LOOK
Now, I’m not suggesting you sleep-walk through sets of bench presses. It seems that many bodybuilders experience excellent results with less than maximum intensity. This is because of the amount of weight you can use for sets of 6 to 12 reps. Perhaps this is because the pecs are close to the heart that they are easier to pump. Or maybe it’s the amount of weight the exercise lends itself to; or a combination of both. It’s hard to say.
That’s not to say you can’t screw up how you perform bench presses. And I’m not saying that every bodybuilder gets great results from bench pressing. Who hasn’t seen some idiot arching their backs a foot off the bench and bouncing the bar hard off their chests as they do bench presses? Cheating like this decreases range of motion and decreases pectoral stimulation. Many bodybuilder find bench pressing makes their pecs thick and full. Just look at Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, Sergio Oliva, Chuck Sipes, or Serge Nubret. Reg Park actually had to stop bench pressing because they made his pecs too big! Other champions, such as Bill Pearl, Chris Dickerson, and Ken Waller, got little chest development from bench presses. They relied on other exercises to help develop their pecs. These include dips, dumbbell presses, and incline dumbbell presses, flyes, pullovers, and cable crossovers
Larry Scott never did standard bench presses ever. He relied on a special version of bench presses. He benched to the neck, wide-grip dips with an inverted grip, and his own special version of dumbbell flyes to develop his chest. Vince Gironda, the famed “Iron Guru,” said standard bench presses were 90% front deltoid. He said they overdeveloped the lower pecs too much and out of proportion to the upper pecs. He insisted his members do only bench presses to-the-neck, wide-grip dips, dumbbell flyes, and round-the-world cable flyes.
Probably 50 to 60 per cent of bodybuilders do not experience good pec growth from bench pressing because they’ve never learned how to bench properly to place the mechanical load on their pecs when they bench. I was one of those who did not get optimal results from bench presses even though I benched in what I thought was good form: no arching on my back, elbows wide, lowering the bar high on my chest and no bouncing of the bar (more on how I learned to bench properly shortly).
Maybe it’s because the exercise seems so easy to perform that people are fooled by its simplicity. When I read instruction in magazines like or some training manuals on how to bench, it makes me laugh. Their instruction goes like this: “Lie on bench. Take wide grip on the bar. Lower the bar to the chest. Press upwards to full extension. Repeat for 3 sets of 10 reps.” It all sounds so simple. It’s also completely wrong.
Folks, I’m here to tell you that is not how you do a bench press. At least if your goal is wide, thick pectoral development. The bench press is actually one of the most complex and complicated exercise you can do. The way most people do bench presses – most of the work goes to the front deltoids and their triceps. Little stimulation goes to the pecs. Only to their lower pecs get stimulation, which end up getting too big and out of proportion to the upper pecs.
MORE EFFECTIVE TECHNIQUE
To get wide, flaring pecs that start at the clavicles and are well-shaped and balanced you have to bench in a special way. I’m here to tell you how to bench in such a way that works the entire pectoral major muscle. Most often bodybuilder’s get too much lower pec development because they want to use the heaviest weight possible. They arch their backs off the bench and bounce the bar off their chest to drive the bar through the sticking point. Many people are in such a big hurry to get big that they cheat too much. They train in such a way as to reduce pectoral stimulation, innervation, and pump. These are the two most important factors for muscle growth! How do you know when you are benching too heavy? Easy. When you lose the feel for the pecs and when you arch your back and cheat, bringing secondary muscle groups into play.
Your number one goals during a set to isolate your pecs. Innervate (have sensory feel of) your pecs and maintain innervation throughout a set. Innervation is a term first coined by Canadian personal trainer Scott Able. He’s one of the brightest minds in bodybuilding. He describes innervation as “the increased supply of nerve fibers or nerve impulses to a body part, usually a muscle.” Increased nerve impulses or nerve output means stronger messages sent via the brain through the neuro-muscular pathways to the muscle. This occurs through harder contractions and increased stimulation. If you cannot feel a muscle as you train it, that is “enervation.” This is characterized as “muscle weakness or numbness.” Such a muscle will not grow well. Bodybuilders must learn to concentrate harder as they do their sets. They need to realize that workouts need as much mental energy as physical energy.
GO WITH THE FLOW
The second most important factor for muscle growth is to increase blood flow to the muscle group. This has to happen if there are to be rock hard pumps. I am a big believer in Dennis DuBreuil’s Blood Theory. It states that there is a direct relationship between how well a muscle pumps and how well it grows. The better and easier a muscle pumps, the better and easier it grows. The less a muscle pumps, the less it grows, if it grows at all. Muscles that are hard to pump do not grow well. Your best and easiest growing muscle groups are those that pump the best. While your worst muscle group are those that pump poorly or do not pump at all.
BENCH WITH YOUR PECS NOT YOUR DELTS
As mentioned before, I didn’t get optimal result from bench presses even though I benched strictly and with what I thought was good form. Most of my development went to my lower pecs, front delts and triceps. I couldn’t understand why until I met John Parrillo in Cincinnati in 1988. Steve Brisbois (1986 IFBB World Amateur Bantamweight champion) and I went to Cincinnati to learn from Parillo. He had a lot of unique idea about building muscle, including fascial planning and fascial stretching.
John told me there are two types of bench pressers, “deltoid” and “pectoral” bench pressers. I was a “deltoid” bench presser. John explained to me that I was flattening my chest at the top of the movement and I was pushing bar through with the strength of my front delts instead of my pecs.
John said that to become a “pec” bench presser I had to pre-set my pectoral girdle before beginning my sets. Only then would the mechanical advantage be placed squarely on my pecs. It is the benefits of properly setting up the pectoral girdle that lead John to develop specially arched benches. They are designed correctly positions your upper body to isolate the pecs. The arched benches drops the shoulders down and back while pushing up the sternum as high as possible for correct pectoral positioning. These benches really work well! You can’t bench incorrectly because your delts are down and your chest is arched. It’s virtually impossible to flatten the pecs in the top position. Your pecs have to do most of the work.
BECOME A PEC PRESSER
Few people have access to Parillo’s arched benches. So I’ll tell you how to become a “pec” bench presser when doing standard bench presses. First, lie on the bench and take a wide grip on the bar (outside the shoulders). Next roll or work your delts down and back and under your torso. It helps to shuffle your upper body back and forth to get the rear delts as much under the body as possible. And to feel as though you are pushing the rear delts down towards the glutes and into the bench. Maintain this feeling of pushing the rear delts down and back throughout the set. This causes the sternum to raise up, which is what you want.
Next thrust your chest forward and upward and begin your set. The more you keep the rear delts down and back, the more the sternum and chest pops forward. Lower the bar slowly to the middle chest. As you push the bar upwards and lockout your elbows at the top, push the bar through with your pecs. Squeeze down with your rear delts and the lower lats and pec minors.
One last important point; the bar does not travel in a straight-up-and-down motion as most assume. It actually travels upwards and backwards at the same time. The bar does not finish over the chest. It finishes over the eyes. This causes the pecs to contract forcibly. If you bench this way you will feel your pecs working even up into your upper pecs. Every fiber of your chest will work.
I suggest you practice this motion with light weight before attempting it on heavy sets. It’s actually easier to learn these vital positions using a seated bench press machine. Really roll and work those rear delts down and back and arch your chest up as much as you can. As you do this, notice how little your front delts are involved in the bench pressing motion. Once you get the correct feelings on the seated bench press machine, take those feelings to the bench press bench.
If you apply the knowledge in this article, your pecs will definitely improve in size and mass. Especially those hard to develop upper pecs. Go for it!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Zulak has been working in the bodybuilding industry for well over 30 years now. He has written over 700 articles published since he began free-lance writing for Bob Kennedy in 1982. His articles have been published in MuscleMag, IronMan, Flex, Muscle & Fitness and Muscular Development. Many of my articles have been published in 19 different language around the world–even Japanese.
He’s currently in the midst of writing about what’s been going on with him for the past 14 years and he is giving away his latest eBook on Lat Training via his website: www.GregZulak.com.