Ahh the bench press. In layman’s terms it’s the timeless “macho” standard, and the first question you get asked when working out gets brought up is almost unanimously how much you can bench. Scientifically, it’s still regarded as THE compound exercise to beat, engaging several major muscle groups and an excellent way to quickly build strength and muscle mass. But, especially if you’re new to hitting the gym, you’re going to hit that “plateau” eventually–nothing’s more depressing then sitting on the same weight for months at a time. Here’s three simple, often underrated workouts you can do on your off days that will make your bench explode and power you past those plateaus…
- The ‘Arnold Press’
The ‘Arnold Press’, named and invented by Arnold himself, was described by Mr. Schwarzenegger as the “best shoulder exercise” he knows of. It’s similar to the standard shoulder press, but with a twist (HAH!). Whether standing upright or sitting on a flat bench (I find sitting gets you much better leverage), stard by holding two dumbbells in front of your chest with your palms facing in (as if you were at the top of a bicep curl). Then, simply lift the dumbbells over your head while rotating your elbows out. At the end of the rep, the dumbells should be over your head with your arms straight, and your palms facing out. Control the motion back down in the same fashion, rotating your elbows back in and finishing with the weights in front of your chest and your palms facing in.
Shoulder strength is a key part of your ability to bench press, and the Arnold Press engages your upper chest and front deltoids MUCH more than a regular shoulder press– and starting with the weights in front of you is much easier on your elbow joints and rotator cuffs. By bringing your upper chest and front deltoids into the mix, this exercise will strengthen your bench pressing muscles dramatically.
Here’s a great visual reference on how to properly execute a rep: Arnold Press vs. Shoulder Press
- 90 Degree Dumbbell Extension
Your rotator cuffs serve as stabilizing muscles during a bench press. You could have Ronnie Coleman pecs, but if your stabilizing muscles are weak, you won’t be able to control the motion of the bench press and it will consequently be much weaker than it could be. My favorite rotator cuff exercise is a 90 Degree Dumbbell External Rotation. Stand up and hold two (pretty light) dumbbells at your side. Keeping your elbows fixed at your sides, lift the weights up until your elbows are at a 90 degree angle with the weights in front of you. This is the starting position. To do the rep, keep your elbows at 90 degrees and rotate your shoulders upward until your upper arm is parallel with the floor. Now lower your arms again, making sure to keep your elbows at 90 degrees with the weights in front of you the entire time. By about the 7th rep you should feel a deep, deep burn isolated in your shoulders– that’s your rotator cuff getting worked.
There are several excellent rotator cuff exercises, and by no means should the above be the only exercise in your rotator cuff regimen. Avoid heavy weights during these exercises as you can easily injure these muscles, and the point of these is not to get huge shoulders, it’s to increase the capacity of your rotator cuffs to stabilize your big-weight exercises.
Here’s an excellent list of several more rotator cuff exercises your should be doing: Avoiding a Benchpress Blowout
- Tricep Pushdown
Your biceps might be cut and huge, but it’s your triceps that do most of the work in the beginning of a bench press rep. Tricep workouts are a great way to get more explosive power to get the bar off your chest. My favorite tricep exercise is a straight up Tricep Pushdown. Grab a straight bar for the cable machine, and stand facing the weight rack. The key here is to keep your elbows as stationary as possible. Grab the bar with your palms facing outward, pull it down until you can put your elbows at your side — this is the starting position. While keeping your elbows fixed at your side, simply push the bar down — you should immediately feel it engage your triceps. After you can’t do another rep, cut the weight in half and try a set with your palms facing inward — this will get a deep burn going and is an awesome way to finish out your tricep sets.
Getting your triceps a workout is tough — and you’ll definitely feel it the next day if you’re not used to exercising them, but after a couple weeks you are guaranteed to see your bench press improve drastically.
Here are some more ideas for increasing tricep strength: Top 10 Tricep Workouts
Benching is a great way to track your progress, increase your strength, and of course, get huge. But remember, it’s one of the easiest ways to kill yourself at the gym– make sure you always use a spotter, don’t try to impress anyone by doing more weight than your can handle, and generally take extra care to be safe!