Are you frustrated with your bench press? Do you consistently get stuck about 3 inches off of your chest every time and can’t figure out why? Or maybe you get this close to lockout, but you just can’t complete the rep. These bench press variations can help you fix either of those issues.
Bench press variations are a great way to break through plateaus and target your weakest points when it comes to pressing. Consequently, these variations are generally for advanced lifters—beginners should start with muscle-building chest standards. But you don’t need to be an expert—any casual lifter definitely build chest and tricep size with these unique movements. Plus, these bench variations are just plain fun and are a great way to mix up your program.
Please note: These are advanced lifts. We strongly recommend that you perform them with at least one reliable spotter (or 2–3 spotters, depending on how much weight you’ll be moving!), as well as a personal trainer who is familiar with these moves and who can help train you on the proper form. (Not to worry—we’ll explain all the details.)
Enjoy these six bench variations—you can thank us later for the gains you never thought possible.
Reverse-Grip Bench Press
Targets: Upper Chest
Benefits: The reverse-grip bench press is a novel way to train the upper chest. A recent Canadian study showed that the reverse grip bench press increased upper pec activation by 30% compared to a traditional, flat pronated-grip bench press. (By comparison, incline bench presses produce about 5% greater upper pec activation over traditional bench presses).
Instructions: Essentially, you’re doing the same thing as a traditional bench press, except with your hands around the bar in a supinated grip (palms facing you) rather than a traditional pronated grip (palms away from you). Consequently, this is a much more risky lift than a traditional bench press, so make sure to keep your thumbs around the bar. Make sure a spotter helps you lift the bar off the rack. Push the bar back in arc to emphasize the upper chest.
Narrow-Grip Floor Press
Target: Upper Chest
Benefits: Studies show that a narrow grip improves upper chest activation because this brings the elbows in toward the sides, putting the upper chest in an advantageous position to perform its primary functions of flexion and horizontal adduction. Furthermore, this allows a safe way to perform a bench press by taking the legs out of the movement.
Instructions: The barbell floor press and the dumbbell floor press are performed with a neutral grip (meaning your palms are facing each other). It is important to mix in neutral-grip-pressing exercises with dumbbells because it not only hits the muscle at a different angle, but prevents wear and tear because it allows for a freer range of motion.
As the name implies, you’ll be lying on the floor when performing this exercise. In narrow-grip press, you’ll put your hands much closer together (leave several inches between them) than you would in a traditional bench press. Make sure you have a spotter help you, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the lift.
Dead Bench Press
Target: Middle Chest
Benefits: Because the negative phase is eliminated, you have to push the weight from a dead stop. Normally you are aided by elastic-like energy stored on the negative portion of the lift. This builds tremendous power out of the bottom portion of the lift which will aid in the strength of all your pressing movements. Stronger presses equal more size.
Instructions: Rather than taking the bar off a higher rack and lowering it as you would in a traditional press, you’ll start from a dead stop (hence the name) with the bar right above your chest. Short-armed lifters start the weight about a half an inch off the chest in the power rack, while long-armed lifters approximately an inch and a half. Only perform this movement for single reps.
Smith Machine Overload Press
Target: Middle Chest
Benefits: Smith-machine negative overloads provide another way to eccentrically overload your pecs. You are capable of handling up to 60% more on the negative portion of a rep. This movement is performed with a Smith Machine and will require two partners. To maximize muscular development, you have to include eccentric overloads.
Instructions: Use 10-25% extra weight on the bar sleeves, at chest level. Have a partner on each side pull the extra weight off the bar. Forcefully press the weight into the top position, then take 5–6 seconds to lower the bar, and then forcefully press it back up with the help of your spotters. A good routine is to do that tempo for as many reps as possible. Once you can no longer complete a full rep, pull the additional weight off and do as many reps as possible at an explosive tempo.
Benefits: Board presses reduce stress on shoulders and pecs and instead overload the triceps because of the reduced range of motion and heavier weights used than regular bench presses. Board presses are a favorite of veteran powerlifters because the power built in the triceps helps to increase maxes in all other presses.
Instructions: In board presses, as the name implies, you’ll have a partner set a board (usually 2x4s, although some brands sell boards of set height) on your chest as you lift, effectively reducing your range of motion.
One close-grip burn-out workout for your triceps is to complete five full-range-of-motion, close-grip bench presses. Then, without racking the bar, have a partner immediately place one board on your chest. Perform five reps. Then, again without racking, have a partner place two boards on your chest and complete five reps. Then, without racking, have a partner place three boards on your chest and complete five reps. Do this again with four boards. By the end, you’ve done 25 repetitions. As you fatigue, leverage improves, providing a killer triceps workout. Close-grip bench presses and board presses can also be done with bands and chains.
Benefits: JM presses are a direct triceps movement that allow you to use very heavy weight. This is the go-to exercise for many powerlifters aiming to develop triceps strength that directly transfers to the bench press. Essentially this is a hybrid movement that lies somewhere between a skullcrusher and a close-grip bench press.
Instructions: Start the bar above your upper pecs with arms extended. Use the same grip you would for a close-grip bench press. As you lower the bar toward your chest, allow your elbows to move slightly forward so they are forward from the wrist. Stop about five inches off your chest, pause for a moment, and then push back to starting position. Make sure you keep your elbows close to your body during the exercise to maximize triceps activation.
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