The bench press in its standard form is fun while it lasts, but repeating the same style of the lift from week to week can be monotonous. It can also stymie your gains, or at least slow down your rate of change.
We all know the standard execution of a proper bench press (if not, check out this step-by-step explainer), and it’s a good exercise. But after a while, you’ll need to mix it up with different loading techniques, rep schemes, and modalities to keep stimulating your muscles and build strength. The bench press variations below are great ways to shake up your typical bench routine.
The Best Bench Press Variations to Spice Up Your Lifting Routine
1. 1.5-Rep Bench Press
For this, you’ll still need a standard barbell bench press setup. Either use a bench press rack or create one by sliding a bench and safety latches to the appropriate places in a squat cage. To perform a 1.5-rep bench press, unrack the weight and lower it to the chest in a controlled motion. Pause for half a second, and then move the barbell up, stopping halfway between a fully lowered position and an arms-extended position (the top of a typical bench press). Hold that halfway position for a second. Next, lower the bar to the chest, pause, and then raise the bar to a full extension. All of that is 1 rep.
Focusing on sets of 3 to 5 reps using this style is ideal. Remember, the time spent under tension for each rep is much longer than standard bench press.
The 1.5-rep bench press works well for chest hypertrophy and strength because the half-rep portions of the lift double the chest stimulation before the triceps fully enter the movement. From a mechanical perspective, it’s the perfect way to really focus the bench press on the chest muscles.
2. Paused Reps
Pausing mid-rep makes a standard bench press much more honest. The how-to is simple: Lower the weight to the chest under control, and then simply freeze for 2 to 3 seconds on the chest. While doing so, be sure to remain tight, and don’t allow your chest to sink in toward the bench while paused.
Pausing removes the stretch reflex that most lifters use to help “sling” the weight up out of the bottom position of the bench press rep. Removing it kills any momentum and makes each lift happen from absolute zero.
For paused reps of any sort, be sure to reduce the weight accordingly. Your 5-rep max with normal weight won’t be your paused 5RM. Reduce the weight by 15 to 20 percent and focus on managing proper technique.
3. Pin Press
The pin press isn’t just a wicked strength builder, it’s also a very smart way to protect your shoulders. That’s especially important if you have a history of shoulder injury (this move is also helpful if you have long arms). In a pin press, the barbell gets blocked by safety latches (pins) before it reaches chest level, so the shoulders are spared from a vulnerable bottom position deep in the hole.
Place a bench in a squat cage and set the safety latches about 3 to 5 inches above the level of your chest. Place the bar on the latches and slide into position under the bar so it’s positioned over your nipple line. Draw the shoulder blades together, grip the bar, and drive it up to full extension. Hold at the top for a 1-second count. Lower the bar back to the pins, and let it settle before commencing the next rep. Pause another second and repeat. Use sets of 3 to 6 reps for increased strength.
4. Cluster Sets
Clusters are a great way to squeeze more work out of your muscles with heavy weight. The science behind this variation is simple. Taking a small break midway through a heavy set allows your energy stores to partially rejuvenate themselves. That gives your muscles just enough juice to squeeze out an extra rep or two.
To do them, load the barbell to your 5-rep max weight. Perform 4 reps before racking the bar. Rest for 15 seconds, take the weight back off the rack, and perform 2 more reps to complete a set. You’ve just performed 6 reps with your 5-rep max. Be sure to rest well between sets—2 minutes at a minimum. Do 4 cluster sets total.
5. Cable Bench Press
Switching to cables in a cable rack instead of a barbell bench press creates a flurry of benefits when it comes to hypertrophy. First, cables force each side of your body to work individually. This creates a very different demand on stability for each shoulder and also makes each pectoral muscle responsible for its own load. Second, the direction of force is different with cables than with a barbell, which can be beneficial. In most cable stations, the pulleys will be set out much wider than a lifter’s shoulder width. That angle aligns better with the actual direction the pectoral muscle fibers travel—the pec’s role is to adduct the upper arm (or pull it inward toward the body). Doing a bench press with cables combines a typical press pattern with a flye pattern because of the constant inward tension you’ll have to apply throughout each rep.
There are few more effective training options for chest hypertrophy than using a pair of cables. Combine this move with lower rest intervals (or create a superset or compound set with another press pattern, like pushups) and you have a surefire recipe for building muscle. Keep reps a bit higher here; sets of 12 to 15 reps will elicit an awesome pump.
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