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Depending on where you are with your current bench press ability, increasing your one rep max by 50lb could be a very straight forward or very difficult process.
If you are just starting out and 50lbs would double your current 1RM then the process is quite straight forward. Most of your struggles will be addressed through improving technique and giving yourself some time.
If you are already lifting 300lbs then adding another 50lbs may be close to impossible depending on your body size, body weight, and level of training expertise.
Whilst the phrase “You can't teach an old dog new tricks” doesn't exactly apply here, it could be possible that your technique is as good as it can be. That being said, the following tips to boost your bench press can apply to the absolute beginner and to the seasoned veteran.
Tip #1: Use Dumbbells to Correct Muscular Imbalances
One downside of training with a barbell is that if you have a muscle imbalance (and you almost certainly do) the stronger arm can take on more of the weight and prevent your weaker arm from catching up.
By using dumbbells you are preventing this from happening as both arms are required to take on 100% of the dumbbells' weight.
This may not ever create total balance, but it will help decrease the difference significantly over time.
Another advantage of using dumbbells is that you can increase the range of motion, and work the pectorals more.
Bringing the dumbbells lower and wider at the bottom of the movement, and then bringing the dumbbells closer at the top to contract the chest even more.
Tip #2: Establish Your 1 Rep Max
For many people, the gym is not a place for science it is a place to lift weights and then go home. If you have reached a plateau though, you might want to reconsider.
Firstly, if you aren't properly measuring and recording your lifts how can you be sure you have in fact reached a plateau?
What you need to do is dedicate a session each to discovering your 1-RM for both Barbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Bench Press.
Make sure you do these at opposite ends of the week so that you have fully recovered, and don't perform any chest, shoulder, or tricep exercises in between.
When you have your 1-RM measurements you can properly assess your future progress, and work out whether you are satisfied with where you are currently at.
Tip #3: Make Small Increases to the Weight
Increasing the load is the only way that you are going to promote growth.
Where most people mess up though is that they try to increase the load by too much at a time.
For example, let's say that you can perform 6 reps at 90kg on the barbell bench press. You have begun to find that slightly easy so decide to increase the weight.
Many gym-goers would now put 100kg onto the bar, fail, and then declare themselves as experiencing a plateau.
What a sensible gym goer should do though is to increase the weight to 92.5kg.
Adding the tiny 1.25kg plates onto the bar might make you feel like an idiot but following this method is the best way to increase your strength.
Being patient and consistent are the best ways to break a plateau.
Tip #4: Perform Negative Reps
Eccentric training or ‘negative training‘ is a little-used form of weight training that is criminally underrated amongst gym-goers.
To give you a brief idea of how it works, when performing a bicep curl you have the concentric contraction which is where you are curling the weight up (and shortening the muscle) and the eccentric contraction where you lower the weight back down again (lengthening the muscle).
Eccentric training involves only performing the eccentric part of the movement.
So for a bench press, you would choose a weight that you can't press back up and then only perform the lowering of the bar towards the chest. Then your spotter would help you bring the bar back up to the starting position.
The most common mistake with negative training is to overuse it.
Try to limit it to one or two sets of negative bench presses per week (completed after 3 regular sets of bench press).
You should always use a spotter with eccentric training.
Tip #5: Widen Your Grip to Increase Chest Activation
Many lifters perform a bench press with a shoulder-width grip. This is perfectly fine and will strengthen the chest but will place a lot more emphasis on the triceps.
Now strengthening the triceps is an integral part of bench press training (more on that in the next tip) but when comparing the two muscle groups which do you think would have the ability to generate more force? That's right the pectorals.
Widening your grip will take a lot of emphasis off the triceps and place it on to the pectorals.
Remember widening your grip for this exercise is to increase the strength in your pectorals. It will not help you to perform a maximal bench press, for that you need a normal grip .
Whilst we are on the subject, finding the right grip for you is very important when attempting to produce a 1RM.
Gregory Lehman (2005) stated that as there are little changes that occur when changing your grip, finding one that suits you personally is best .
Tip #6: Perform Close-Grip Bench Presses
While widening your grip is good for increasing pectoral activation, a good bench press requires strong triceps.
Using a close-grip bench press (heavy weight, low reps) is the best way to increase tricep size and strength.
This, in turn, will increase your bench press 1RM.
Tip #7: Keep Your Feet On The Ground
This is not a motivational phrase. We literally want you to keep your feet on the ground when you bench press!
When people try to perform a heavy bench press it is not uncommon to see them lift their feet in the air, as if doing so will help them raise the bar. On the contrary, this will actually hinder their chances.
The best way to bench press a heavy load is to drive your feet into the floor so hard that you feel the strain in your quadriceps.
This is why you see a lot of powerlifters with their feet tucked so far back underneath them when trying to break records. Because the extra power from their feet is transferred into the lift.
Whilst on the subject, also make sure that your head is in contact with the bench rather than raised in the air.
This is for the same reason, it takes away a bit of your power when raising it off a surface.
Tip #8: Train Full Body Rather Than Split
Most people who are training in the gym follow a muscle split program. Chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, Legs on Wednesday etc … But to get the most out of the bench press you need to increase the number of times you train it per week.
If you are following a split you will most likely manage to perform the bench press once per week (on chest day).
Using a full-body split you could perform it two or even three times.
Schoenfeld et al (2015) found that following a total body program produced significantly greater strength gains than split programs .
Tip #9: Get Your Technique Right
This is the most important consideration, is your technique optimal? Because if not then you can possibly increase your bench by as much as 10%.
Have you got your shoulders retracted so that your chest is pushed out? Are your feet drawn up underneath you so that you can use your legs to drive the weight up? Is your head flush with the bench throughout the lift?
Are you performing the full range of motion? Because if not you aren't working the chest sufficiently and your strength will be stunted.
Short term this may actually lower your 1-RM as it is forcing you to increase ROM, but long term this will really help.
Tip #10: Save Those shoulders
If you perform your bench presses incorrectly then you may end up injuring yourself, which will seriously damage any attempt to gain muscle.
One of the biggest issues is flaring the elbows out. This can put a lot of strain onto your shoulder joints. Potentially leading to rotator cuff injuries.
Luckily this is an easy thing to rectify, as you simply need to bring your elbows in to make a 45-degree angle with your armpit.
This simple change will bring the weight more towards your chest and will help to bring your triceps into play, therefore helping to assist your lifts.
Tip #11: Avoid The Back Arch
If you are hyper-extending your back while bench pressing then you could be putting your lower back under a great amount of stress that could lead to the crushing of your vertebrae.
The key to avoiding this overextension is just to lift naturally. Retract your shoulder blades down and back before you lay on the bench.
You should have a small gap between your mid-back and the bench, this is the natural position that you should aim to be in.
Tip #12: Avoid Lifting Too Much
Why do we all tend to lift more than we can manage when we visit the gym? Is it an ego thing?
Unfortunately lifting too much can cause a loss of form that can raise the risk of injury.
My suggestion to you would be to stop worrying about what everyone else is lifting. Just focus on yourself and using the proper form.
Of course, you need to push yourself to see those gains but if you are unable to keep the proper technique of the bench press while lifting then perhaps it is time for you to lighten the load a little.
Think of it this way. Are you going to be gaining any muscle or strength while you lay in bed injured? I think not.
Tip #13: Increase Your Calories
A plateau might be a sign that you are not consuming enough calories to fully recover and grow between sessions.
Muscle Protein Synthesis requires increased protein to work properly. This is why athletes require double the protein of sedentary people .
Simply increasing the amount of protein in your diet could be the answer to your bench press issues.
Tip #14: Improve Your Rest
This means to improve your rest period between sets, you can increase the time or the quality and see if that makes a difference.
It also means improving your sleep. Multiple studies have shown increased sleep has a positive effect on athletic performance .
To get the most out of your bench press you need to make sure that your technique is flawless, that you are performing it at least two times per week, that you add in close-grip and wide-grip variations, perform negative reps, and alternate between barbell and dumbbell variations.
You also need to be consistent and make sure that you are constantly pushing yourself because you will only ever add 50lbs to your bench if you do so.