By Steven Stiefel
Have you ever seen an optical illusion? A sketch of a young woman is actually the face of an old lady; or the outline of a bird, an old man. Look at them long enough, and all of a sudden you see the image in a new light, bringing new depth and meaning to the artwork. Well, it’s time to take a good, long look around the gym for some of the best chest exercises that you’ve looked at but never really seen. Look hard because they’re there. In fact, they’re closer than you think.
That’s right. We’re pointing to the bench press. Long claimed to be the single-best chest exercise to which nothing else could compare. We dare you to take another look at the bench press. We found four, that’s right, four chest exercises* that are better than the standard bench press. But rather than have you run to other areas of the gym in search of that holy grail of chest equipment, we have to clarify the asterisk we placed on that previous remark. What we’re really trying to tell you is that there are some pretty incredible techniques that can make the all-powerful bench press even mightier than it already is. Techniques and methods that, when done properly, can add pounds to your bench and inches to your chest all at the same time.
We stand by our statement that each of the four techniques is superior to the standard bench press. All that’s required is for you to take the time to look, learn, perfect and perform them. If you do, your chest will never be the same; if you don’t, it probably will.
Partial to Benching
Whether you’re talking about chest or any other bodypart, partials are all about overloading a particular portion of the range of motion (ROM) without doing a full-range rep. By bench pressing with partials, you break the lift into smaller components within the range of motion, allowing you to handle a weight that’s much heavier than you’d normally use if you were working through a full ROM.
Let’s start by taking a close look at the standard bench press. We’ve all met the dreaded ‘sticking point’ before, and if it weren’t for a trusted training partner, many of us would likely still be underneath the bar somewhere halfway up. But just above that sticking point, wherever that might be for you individually, is the portion of the range motion in which you’re actually a lot stronger, an area you don’t typically spend much time specializing in. In other words, once you hit the sticking point in the lift and fail (typically about halfway up), you’re forced to rack the weights and the set is terminated. But the truth is, you’re still able to handle that same weight (or even more) in the upper portion of the range of motion; you only failed at one point along the strength curve, that area where you’re weakest (because of biomechanics). So the key is to learn to overload that portion of the ROM, not where you’ll hit your sticking point, but above it, where your strength is actually enhanced, and then go heavy and really attack it. That’s where the genius of partial rep training comes in.
To put it simply, partials help you isolate a particular portion of the lift and allow you to work only at that angle. But you can’t do partials at your standard bench-press station, so head over to the power rack. The power rack is obviously an ideal place to train with partials because you can set the safety bars in place. Then with the safeties at the halfway point, for example, you can load the bar up with more weight than you’d typically lift and train over the shortened ROM. You can even start that shorter bench press with a ROM of just a few inches. That gives you a chance to experience how a very heavy weight feels in your hands as you try and move the bar just 4–6 inches. That’s fine. My suggestion is to start with about 15% more weight than you can lift for your 10RM (a weight you can lift for 10 and only 10 reps); if that’s too light, bump it up.
From week to week or within the same workout, you can lower the safety bars to the next setting (usually a couple of inches) and expand the ROM. If you choose to lower the weight a couple of inches in the same workout, you’ll obviously have to reduce the weight somewhat with each change in angle, but you should still be lifting more than you could handle through a complete ROM at each level. In other words, if you’re training with partial reps using the same weight you’d use during normal bench pressing, you’re not getting the most out of the technique. That’s not to say you’re not gaining some benefits, but the idea is to go heavier than normal.
Chained to the Bench
Can chains really make the bench press even better? I mean you don’t see a lot of guys using them at the gym, so what gives? First and foremost, the idea of chains isn’t merely about adding weight, though at first glance, it might appear to be. You may be thinking, “Why not simply add more plates?” That’s a good question. But with chains added to the ends of the bar, you actually vary the resistance during the bench move from the bottom of the rep to the top, unlike when you simply add a weight (which goes along for the rep all the way through the range of motion). When was the last time you were able to literally change the resistance of a free weight move mid rep? We’ll wait while you think about that one.
The truth is, you might be able to handle a certain weight at the top of the bench press, but you’re not quite strong enough to handle that same weight when the bar is an inch away from your chest. That’s why chains are so great. With your arms fully extended above you, more of the heavy chains are off the floor (the bar is at a farther distance from the floor). That’s the heaviest the bar will ever be during this set. But as you lower the bar toward your chest (entering the weakest portion of your lift), the bar gets lighter as the bar descends and more links begin to rest on the floor. Then as you press the bar up and off of your chest, more links are once again lifted off the floor, causing the bar to increase in weight toward the top.
So as the weight is getting heavier, you obviously have to recruit more muscle fibers. And, as with partials, you’re strongest toward the end of the range of motion (past your sticking point), which is ideal because in this case, that’s when you’re lifting the most weight. Chains cause the bar to get heavier the farther you press it away from your chest, which allows for maximal tension on the pecs when the muscle is at its strongest. That’s some chain reaction!
Unless your gym has chains readily available, you may have to invest in your own set and keep them in your trunk. Probably the most popular method of incorporating chains into your bench-press routine is to get two 3/8" chains and two 5/8" chains. The 3/8" chain is used to wrap around the end of the bar and hold the 5/8" chain. One 3/8" chain (five pounds) plus one 5/8" chain (20 pounds) weighs about 25 pounds. And during the bench press, when setting up the chains on the bar, it’s crucial that the 5/8" chains rest completely on the floor in the bottom position. There will probably be some trial and error until you get it perfect.
Try Not to Move
With so many guys trying to impress one another with how much weight they can bench, it seems out of place to consider a technique to bring up your pecs that instead focuses on zero visible movement. You naturally think that the bar needs to be moving for there to be any benefit. But indeed, in no other exercise can isometrics catapult you to the next level than on the bench press.
In way of review, an isometric contraction is one in which the muscular force equals the external resistance, producing no visible movement. A good example would be if you loaded up the bar with much, much more weight than you could possibly bench it doesn’t move an inch. While the bar may not be moving, that doesn’t mean nothing is going on inside your muscles. In fact, research confirms that you can increase both size and strength doing isometric contractions. The bottom line is you’re going to use more weight than your max lift, producing no movement whatsoever.
For that reason, we again look to the power rack for help because the standard bench press isn’t safe, nor is it practical, to try isometrics. With that said, there are a couple of ways you can approach the power rack with isometrics. You can either load a bar that’s resting atop the safety bars with more weight than you can possibly budge, or you can hold an empty bar underneath the safeties and press upward into the bars (which again will result in no movement). Both ways will have the same result of an incredible amount of force and zero movement, both vital to a successful isometric exercise.
But there’s a catch with isometric training: It’s angle specific, meaning you only gain strength and size at that particular angle. So let’s say you set the safety bars just above chest level. Your gains in strength will be realized solely at that angle. That’s where the power rack is so helpful because it offers so many angles to work within simply by changing the height of the safety bars. In the end, if you’re able to increase strength at multiple levels, you’ll be able to move more weight during normal bench pressing. More strength equals more mass. End of story.
But if the bar doesn’t move, what does an isometric set look like? Well, because there’s no movement of the bar, one way to account for a set is to view each second of pressing time as a single rep; one second equals one rep. So if your goal is 10 reps, you’d press against the bar with all your strength for 10 seconds. After a sufficient rest period, 1–2 minutes let’s say, you’d repeat that process. Then you can raise or lower the safety bars and repeat the process at a new angle. You can either do that in the same workout or even from week to week if you cared to focus only on a particular angle on a given day. After doing isometric bench presses, you’ll move to other exercises with varying angles to complete your daily workout.
Bench Press…In Reverse
Like the other techniques, this one starts on the standard bench press. The idea is to completely flip the bench press, which is exactly what a “reverse movement” does. To review, here’s how the typical rep goes: You unrack the bar and hold it above your chest. Next, inhale and slowly lower the bar toward your lower pecs (this isn’t a negative, just lower it under control as usual) before exploding the bar back up to the start position. That’s how you’ve done it a thousand times, but we’re going to completely reverse the protocol.
A reverse bench press has you begin each rep with the bar at your chest, completely eliminating that initial downward phase. Unless you’ve tried it, you may not realize that when you lower the bar to the chest, you’re actually building up negative energy (sometimes called elastic energy) inside the target muscles as well as the assisting delts and triceps. And when the bar reaches the chest and you explode upward, that built-up energy is used to press the bar back up to the start. (Ever wonder why the first rep in, say, dumbbell bench presses is so hard? The weights are in the down position and you have to build up the energy to assist in the lift.) If you didn’t have that built-up energy, as is the case with the reverse bench press, it’s much more difficult to bench press. And that’s precisely what reverse movements do. They eliminate the built-up negative energy that makes the positive (concentric) contraction easier to perform. Each and every rep starts from a full stop, making it much harder to complete.
For reverse movements to be the most effective, it’s important to let the bar settle on the safety bars (set at the bottom of the range of motion just above your chest) between each rep. In other words, each rep must begin and end in the bottom part of the bench press, where the bar is near your chest. But you physically have to allow the bar to rest on the safety bars for a split second, allowing the energy to release from your chest, arms and shoulders before pressing upward. If it helps, go ahead and count “one thousand one” between each rep to ensure you’re stopping long enough between reps.
Clearly this exercise is also done in the power rack because it’s the safest and most effective place to perform reverse-style bench presses (or anything reverse style for that matter). Just set a bench inside the rack, placing the safety bars at a point just above your chest. Begin loading the bar, warming up as you’d normally do if you were doing a standard bench press. Once you’re warm, you can begin your reverse bench presses. Each rep begins with the bar in the bottom position. After each set, rest about two minutes, then repeat. Just remember, you won’t be able to do as many reps as you can with your normal weight, but the focus here is on building strength out of the hole, so to speak, so that when you go back to conventional bench pressing, you’ll be far stronger and able to explode the weight up from the bottom. For advanced bodybuilders, you can even raise the safety bars (a few times) and train at a different angle incorporating the reverse technique.
So there you have it. Four techniques and in effect, four new exercises that you can add to your chest routine, all guaranteed to do more for you than a conventional bench press could. We’ve also included a sample workout plan (four weeks, four methods) so you can get an idea on how each should be included in your routine. You can try it or you can also use any one technique for up to four weeks before switching. Either way, take a week or two off after each month to make sure you don’t overtrain your chest (and overwork your joints). The great thing about these techniques is that once you perfect them for chest, the concepts can be applied to other bodyparts, so start thinking outside the box for bigger gains.
Hot to Use the Better-Than-Bench Techniques
Make the king of upper-body exercises reign supreme with these four workouts
Bench Press Partial Training: 4 Sets (3 angles) x 6-12 Reps (2 min Rest)
Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 Sets x 10-12 Reps (1-2 min Rest)
Decline Flye: 3 Sets x 10-12 Reps (1-2 min Rest)
Push-Up: 2 Sets to failure (1 min Rest)
Bench Press with Chains: 4 Sets x 6-10 Reps (2 min Rest)
Smith-Machine Decline Press: 4 Sets x 10-12 Reps (1-2 min Rest)
Incline Cable Flye: 3 Sets x 12-15 Reps (1-2 min Rest)
Pec-Deck Machine: 2 Sets x 15 Reps (1 min Rest)
Bench Press with Isometrics: 4 Sets (3 angles) x 10 Reps (2 min Rest)
Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press: 4 Sets x 12 Reps (1-2 min Rest)
Incline Dumbbell Press: 4 Sets x 15 Reps (1-2 min Rest)
Dips: 3 Sets to failure (1 min Rest)
Reverse Bench Press**: 4 Sets x 8-10 Reps (2 min Rest)
Decline Cable Flye: 4 Sets x 12-15 Reps (1-2 min Rest)
Incline Dumbbell Flye: 4 Sets x 12-15 Reps (1-2 min Rest)
Incline Dumbbell Pullover: 2 Sets x 12-15 Reps (1-2 min Rest)