Safety first: Hey, guy—you might want to recruit a spotter next time.
Of all of the strength exercises out there, the bench press is king. Here’s why: It’s effective, it’s simple, and nearly any gym you enter — from your condo’s tiny weight room to high-end uber-gyms — will have at least one bench press station. While your basic press hasn’t changed since Arnold learned how to do it — which guesstimates put at around age 2, immediately after learning to crawl — recent research reveals some new techniques that can help you get the most out of the move.
1. Take four full seconds to lower the bar.
While you might think that you’re not working very hard when you lower the bar down, your muscles are actually very active in order to control the weight’s deceleration, says Steve Kelly, a kinesiologist at Vanguard University. In fact, the lowering portion of the bench press is especially important for building muscle size and strength, research shows. But a regular bench press done at a moderate tempo doesn’t train this phase very effectively, and here’s why: You’re stronger lowering the bar than you are lifting the bar. A recent study by Kelly and colleagues published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that men can lower 124 percent more weight than they can push up. So if you can press 100 pounds, your muscles could handle lowering a bar loaded with 124 pounds. (This percentage is even higher in women, other studies suggest.)
In order to challenge your muscles during the lowering phase of the bench press, take four seconds to lower the bar to your chest, said Daniel Lorenz, DPT, owner of Specialists in Sports and Orthopedic Rehabilitation in Overland Park, Kansas. Doing this recruits more type II muscle fibers, the fibers that help you explosively press the bar up and also that have the greatest impact on muscle size, Lorenz told Yahoo Health.
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2. Add a resistance band.
To make your muscles bigger and stronger, you have to challenge them with enough weight to stimulate changes. That’s true for any exercise, but especially for type II muscle fibers, which respond especially well to heavy loads, Lorenz said. However, that creates a problem with the bench press: Since you can lower more than you can lift, if you were to use a weight heavy enough to really challenge your muscles during the lowering portion, you probably wouldn’t be able to lift it back up, Kelly told Yahoo Health. You’d be stuck in the gym with a heavy bar on your chest until someone came along to help you out — a strategy that’s both embarrassing and inefficient.
To work around this problem, grab an elastic resistance band (the kind that’s one continuous loop). Loop it around one end of your bar, run the band underneath the bench, and loop it again on the other end of the bar, as demonstrated in the GIF above.
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This variation has several benefits, according to a study published in the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Strength and Conditioning Journal, authored by Lorenz and colleagues. For one, the band will pull the bar down, and you’ll have to resist its pull in order to lower the weight in a smooth, controlled motion. In addition, the band helps you work through the so-called “sticking point” of the bench press. “At the very bottom of the lift, the bands aren’t really giving you much resistance, but because of that, you’re able to come off the chest faster to get through the sticking point,” Lorenz told Yahoo Health. “This trains your body to follow this pattern of movement even when you take away the resistance band.”
For heavy reps, enlist a spotter to help you pull the weight back up so that you can really train that lowering part of the exercise. If you don’t have a spotter, just choose a weight-band combo that you can confidently press back up.
3. Push the bar up as fast as you can.
Manipulating the tempo at which you push the bar up can also improve your results, research shows. Recently, Spanish researchers asked a group of young men to follow a bench press strength-training program three days per week for six weeks. Half of the subjects lifted the weight as quickly as possible during their training sessions. The other group lifted at about half that speed. By the end of the study, the fast lifters increased the maximum amount of weight they could bench-press by 40 pounds. The slower group improved, too, but only by about half that amount. How much you can bench-press isn’t solely determined by your raw muscle strength, Lorenz explained: “The speed of the bar coming off your chest and the elasticity of your muscles also play a role, and that’s what I think is going on here.”
If you’re new to lifting weights, stick with a traditional bench press at a moderate pace. These advanced techniques are safest and most effective in people who have some training experience, Lorenz cautioned. If you have a base level of fitness, then use these tips to break through a plateau or add variety to your training.
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