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Bench Press Assistance Exercises

by Gary F. Zeolla

See Powerlift Assistance Exercises: Background Info for a discussion on how to best incorporate assistance exercises into ones powerlifting routine. See also Bench Press Assistance Exercises Videos.

These exercises are divided by which part of the bench they most benefit. Those who compete "raw" (without wraps and a suit) need to focus on strengthening the bottom part of the lift while full gear lifters need to focus more on the top part of the lift. But there is overlap here. So if you are a raw lifter but are missing near the top of the lift, then one or more of the "Helps the top half of the squat" exercises might be helpful, and vice-a-versa.

It is recommended that raw lifters pause all of their reps on regular benches and on any "pressing" type of assistance work. Meanwhile, shirted benchers would probably be better of using a touch 'n go method. Just be sure you are not bouncing the bar off of the chest. However, practice using a pause anytime the shirt is used in training.


Helps the bottom part of benches

Wide Grip Benches* - This exercise works the anterior delts and pecs to a greater degree than regular benches, and they basically take the triceps out of the movement. So they help the bottom and middle part of the lift.

However, wide grip benches place quite a bit of strain on the wrists. Wrist wraps might help in this regard. But if wide grip benches still cause undo discomfort, then it would be best to avoid them. But if you can tolerate them, they are an excellent exercise. Use a grip about one hand width wider than for one's regular bench, and pause at the chest as with regular benches. These are a good exercise for those lifters who are planning on competing raw, but they would be of little use to those benching with a shirt.

3-Second Pause Benches* - As the name implies, pause the bar at the chest for a slow three count ("1--2--3"). Doing this will improve one's lift off of the chest, and it will make the wait for the press signal at a contest seem short. This is another good exercise for raw benchers but not shirted benchers.

Cambered Bar Benches* - A cambered bar is a bar that is bent up and across in the middle. The idea of using it is, by keeping the "bend" at the top, one can lower the weight to below the chest. This will then help one get the weight off of the chest at the bottom position. So these might be a good exercise for raw lifters. However, they can be rather awkward to do. The bent part has a tendency to flip down. Also, they can be dangerous as the bend is so high that one could end up going too far down and pull a muscle.

A safer alternative would be to use dumbbells. The advantage of dumbbells is you can lower the weights lower than on barbell benches, just as with a cambered bar. But unlike a cambered bar, if something doesn't "feel right" you can dump the weights and maybe avoid injury. See below for further details on dumbbell benches.

Flyes/ Peck Dec/ Cable Crossovers - These are very popular chest exercises, but none of them are really that effective for building muscular size or strength. And there is very little carry-over to benches from such exercises. The various bench press  variations above are much more effective. But these movements might have a place at the end of a chest workout to pump up the pecs.

Helps the top part of benches

A word of warning to shirted benchers. If you concentrate on using the exercises below, it is very possible that your raw bench will stagnate or even go down. The reason for this is your drive off of the chest will weaken. But this does not matter. All that matters is that your weights on these exercises and on your shirted bench is going up.

Chain Benches* -  See Bands and Chains for details.

Band Benches* - See Bands and Chains for details.

Reverse Band Benches* -  See Bands and Chains for details.

Lockouts/ Rack Benches* - These are partial bench presses. The idea is to do these from just below wherever ones "sticking point" is. To do partial benches, one could just do a benches as normal, but only go part way down. But the problem with this is the danger factor. You can handle a lot more weight on partial benches than on regular benches.

So I would recommend putting a flat bench in a power rack. Set the safety bars just below ones sticking point. There are then two possible ways of doing these. For the first, set the hooks in the power rack at the appropriate height to be used as the bench uprights. Take the bar off of the hooks as normal, but then lower the bar until it just taps the safety bars and then press it. Do not pause on the bars.

The second method would be to rest the bar on the safety bars. Slide underneath the bar, press it from a dead stop, and then lower it and rest it fully on the safety bars. Then again press it from the dead stop. Experiment with each method to see which works best for you. Or use one method for one routine, and the other for the next. Given the heavy weights utilized, it might be prudent to wear wrist wraps when doing this exercise. The same would go for the following two exercises.

Board Benches* - This exercise is similar to power rack lockouts. Only here, one places two to four boards (nailed together) on the chest. Lower the bar until it taps the boards and then press the weight.

Floor Press* - Yet another way to do partial benches. Simply lie on floor in a power rack. Use the hooks in the power rack for the uprights. Take the weight off of the racks and lower the bar until the elbows just touch the floor and and then press up.

Close Grip Bench Presses* - This is a great bench press assistance exercise. It is good for working the anterior (front) deltoids and triceps in a way that will directly benefit the bench press. This exercise especially helps the top third of the lift. The grip should be as close as is comfortable. I grip the bar on the smooth sections of a power bar, in-between the center and outer knurling sections. So my hands are about 9" apart. The elbows should be kept close to the body.

Helps all aspects of benches

Weighted Dips* - These are very taxing to all three major muscles groups used in the bench press, the pecs (especially the lower pecs), anterior delts, and triceps. If you are unable to do dips with your bodyweight, then you have a couple of options. The first is to only do partial dips, gradually going deeper with each workout as you are able. A second option would be to have a spotter hold your legs and give you as much assistance as necessary to complete a full dip. There are also machines available for performing assisted dips.

To target the anterior delts and lower pecs you need to lean forward about 15 degrees. Done in this fashion dips help mainly the middle third of the bench. If you do them straight up and down then your triceps will get most of the work, and the exercise will help mainly the top third of the bench.

Be sure to go down as far as your flexibility allows but not so far as to overly tax your shoulders. And be sure you are thoroughly warmed-up before attempting deep dips. I would recommend doing them after another major bench movement. Also, always do at least one warm-up set before your work sets. Be sure to do them in a slow, control manner so as not to hurt your shoulders.

Speed Benches* - Speed work is becoming a  popular way to train the powerlifts. The idea is that by moving quickly one develops explosive strength.

The lifter uses 50-60% of his/ her 1RM and moves the bar very quickly. However, the lifter should maintain control of the bar at all times. It is also imperative that one maintains correct form throughout the performance of the lift  The lifter also has to be careful at the top of the lift that the momentum of the bar does not cause an injury. Bands and chains can be used to slow the ascent of the bar at the top. For benches, be sure not to bounce the bar off of the chest. Do them touch and go, but don't bounce. For more about this type of training, see Speed Work.

Rack-Speed Benches* - This is a specific form of speed work for those whose sticking point is in the middle part of the lift. Put a bench in a power rack and use two sets of safety bars. One set of safety bars is placed so that the bar is about 3-4 inches off of the chest and the other set of bars about 2-3 inches below lockout. Place the bar on the bottom set of safeties.

Slide underneath the bar. Quickly press the bar up and just tap the top set of safety bars and then lower it quickly and just tap the bottom set of bars. Repeat for the required number of reps, then rest the bar on the bottom set of safeties, and slid back out.

Incline Bench Presses* - A very good exercise for working the upper pecs and anterior delts. The higher the angle of the bench, the more the delts will be worked and the less the pecs. An angle of about 45 degrees is generally recommended. For a video of barbell inclines, click here.

Decline Bench Presses* - These work the lower pecs and anterior delts. But they are very awkward to do. You are almost hanging upside down, which can cause a headache for many. And it can be difficult to press the weight up without "wobbling" as you do. But if one get get the hang of them, declines are an effective exercise. They work the lower pecs, which are involved in regular benches, especially if you arch when benching.

Reverse Grip Bench* - For this exercise, the lifter holds the bar with a palms up (curl) grip. Using a reverse grip forces the elbows to stay in to the sides and thus emphasizes the triceps.

Dumbbell Bench Presses* - Doing benches will dumbbells actually works more muscles than barbell benches. This is because more stabilizer muscles are needed to keep control of the dumbbells. However, it is because of the unwieldy nature of dumbbells that they can be more dangerous. If a dumbbell "gets way from you" while performing a lift, you could pull something trying to pull it back in place. To avoid this, be sure to concentrate at all times while using dumbbells. Of course, that's good advice when lifting in general, but even more so with dumbbells.

The biggest difficulty with dumbbells is getting them into place. I would suggest the following: Set the weights at the foot of the bench and sit on the end. Pick up the weights and swing them onto your thighs, plates against your things. Then lean backwards keeping your legs bent. Only when you're lying on the bench, lower your legs to the floor, and then rotate the weights into place. Keeping the legs bent while going back will help prevent straining the back. Just be careful you don't roll off the bench before you put your legs down!

An even better alternative is to use "Power Hooks." These hook onto the dumbbells and then are hooked onto a bar placed in a power rack. The lifter then racks and un-racks the dumbbells as one would a barbell. Power hooks can be purchased from APT.

Dumbbells can also be used for doing incline and decline benches. And the same comments above would apply for these exercises as well. The only difference is, for declines you would have to have someone hand the weights to you after getting set, as they're no way to safely get in position while holding the weights, unless you are using the above mentioned Power Hooks.

For raw lifters, an especially productive method of doing DB benches is in an alternating arms fashion. You press one arm at a time, while the resting arm pauses at the chest. That way, the resting arm is forced to pause extra long while the other arm pressing the weight up and comes back down. For a video of this exercise and a demonstration of using Power Hooks, click here.

For a video of DB Incline Benches, click here.

For a video of DB Decline Benches, click here.

Overhead Presses/ Overhead Dumbbell Presses - Overhead presses work the upper pecs, anterior delts, and triceps as benches do. So they do provide some benefit for the bench press, especially for the middle part of the lift. However, most of the stress when doing presses is on the medial (middle/ top) delts, which are mainly used in a supportive role in benches. So the carry-over to benches is not as great as with the above exercises. But still, presses can have a place in a powerlifter's routine to maintain muscular balance in the shoulder. And they are a great size and strength builder in general. For a video of BB Overhead Presses, click here. For a video of DB Overhead Presses, click here.

Upright Rows - Upright rows are a unique exercise in that they are both a bench press and a deadlift assistance exercise. They are a bench assistance exercise since, as with presses, they work the medial delts. However, they are a deadlift exercise in that they work the traps. They also work the biceps.

The wider one's grip the more upright rows work the delts, and the narrower the grip, the more they work the traps. Also the delts do most of the work until the  upper arms are about parallel, and then the traps take over. So to focus on the delts, use a wide grip and only come up to parallel. To focus on the traps, use a narrow grip and raise the bar to chin level. To work both evenly, use a shoulder width grip and raise the bar to the top of the chest.

But it is important to mention that some consider upright rows to be a dangerous exercise. They put the shoulder in an unnatural position, which can lead to injury. Personally, I no longer do them for this reason. But it is up to the reader if they are worth the risk or not. But if they are done, be careful to use correct form. Stay upright with no forward or backward bending, and raise and lower the bar in slow, controlled manner.

Laterals (Front and Side) - Front laterals work mainly the anterior delts. So there would be some carry-over to benches. However, the bench variations above would be more effective. Side laterals work mainly the medial delts, so they would be little benefit to benches. Presses would be a more effective exercise for powerlifters to include than side laterals for shoulder development. But either form of laterals might be useful to pump up the delts after a chest/ shoulder workout.

Triceps Exercises - Close grip benches, dips, band and chain benches, and the various partial bench movements described above work the triceps very effectively and in a manner that would have the most carry over to benches. The triceps also get a lot of work from any other pressing movement. And for many, this will provide more than adequate triceps work. In fact, including direct triceps work could lead to overtraining the triceps. Also, one has to be careful as such exercises can be taxing to the elbows.

However, some might find that isolation triceps exercises benefit the lockout on the bench and/ or serve to pump up the triceps at the end of a bench workout. And for such purposes, there are many good triceps exercises, but the various forms of "French presses" and triceps pushdowns are probably the best. A very effective way to work the latter is to use a Triceps Strap Rope (pulley strap attacment), availble from APT Inc..

Rotator Cuff Work - See Rotator Cuff Exercises Videos.

Bench Press Assistance Exercises. Copyright 2001-2007 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above exercise descriptions were posted on this site November 28, 2001
and last updated November 30, 2007.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Powerlift Assistance Exercises

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