The barbell bench press is a rite of passage lift for most lifters and is an integral member of the powerlifting big three. It is so well known and regarded that it has a name of the week named after it — because who hasn’t benched on a Monday? The barbell bench press allows you to build upper body size and strength, which has a huge carryover to activities in and out of the gym.
But the barbell bench press can be unforgiving on your upper body joints. It pays to program accessory exercises to strengthen your bench press rather than just benching more. Accessory exercises will help increase your upper body size and strength while taking it easier on your joints.
Here, we’ll break down the best bench press accessory exercises, some anatomy, programming suggestions, and tips to get the best out of your bench press accessory training.
Best Bench Press Accessory Exercises
- Plyo Push-Up
- Dumbbell Floor Press
- Pause Push-Up
- Close Grip Push-Up
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- JM Press
- High Cable Flye
- TRX Inverted Row
- Trap Bar Floor Press
- Single-Arm Dead Stop Row
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Spoto Press
- Pin Press
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The plyo push-up is one of the more difficult push-up variations to perform. You’ll be training pushing power, which will have a direct carryover to your bench press.
This move is so effective because it will activate your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which have more potential for growth. Stimulating these fibers will help you blast past the two common sticking points in the bench press — the bottom and the lockout.
Benefits of the Plyo Push-Up
- Plyo push-ups will help you get past two big bench press sticking points.
- You’ll improve your pressing power production, which will help your bench press.
- This move improves your athletic performance by building pressing strength and speed.
How to Do the Plyo Push-Up
Get into a push-up position on the floor with your hands underneath your shoulders. You’ll essentially be in front plank position. Lower yourself quickly to the floor. Explosively push yourself up, with your hands leaving the ground. Make sure your wrists are warmed up before you start.
The dumbbell floor press will overload your triceps and chest while limiting your range of motion (ROM) due to being on the floor. This limited ROM and reduced lower body involvement shifts more emphasis to your chest and triceps.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Floor Press
- The neutral grip and the reduced ROM is easier on your shoulders than the traditional bench press.
- Reduced lower body involvement puts more focus on the chest and triceps.
- This press variation overloads the triceps to build lockout strength for the barbell bench press.
How to Do the Dumbbell Floor Press
Lie on your back with a dumbbell. Roll over, grip the dumbbell with both hands, press up, and take one hand off. Stabilize the weight above your head. Have your feet on the ground with your knees bent, or keep your legs extended. Lower the dumbbell until your upper arm touches the ground. Press up until lockout.
With the pause push-up, you’ll be spending more time in a tough sticking point for the bench press — the bottom of the lift, right off your chest. Lifters often get stuck just when they’re starting the ascent.
The pause push-up gives you more time under tension to strengthen this weak point. It also takes the stretch reflex out of the muscle, meaning your muscles will work harder to overcome gravity. This also translates into more lockout strength.
Benefits of the Pause Push-Up
- The pause puts your chest muscles under tension for longer, better developing strength in the bottom position.
- It makes concentric contraction more difficult because the muscle stretch reflex is removed — this builds a stronger lockout.
- When you’re weak off the chest, it helps to spend more time with the pause push-up.
How to Do the Pause Push-Up
Set up as you would for a regular push-up. Lower your chest slowly to the ground, your arms 45 degrees out from your torso. Stop with your chest above the ground for three to five seconds. Push back up until lockout. Pause for a beat. Reset and repeat.
The close-grip push-up shifts the load to your triceps, inner chest, and anterior deltoids because of the close hand placement. Due to the reduced support base, you’ll perform fewer reps than the regular push-up.
Still, you’ll be training your chest from a different angle. This will help strengthen your triceps for improved lockout strength and development.
Benefits of the Close-Grip Push-Up
- This push-up variation develops high levels of lockout strength due to increased triceps activation.
- The reduced support base improves core strength and trains your chest from a different angle for better muscle development.
- Performing this move with a close grip takes the onus off your shoulder joints to give the shoulders a break from the barbell.
How to Do the Close-Grip Push-Up
Get into a plank position with your hands close together, back flat, and feet wider than hip-width apart. Screw your palms into the ground. Slowly lower yourself until your chest is about an inch from the floor and your upper arms are touching your sides. Now, drive back up until lockout. Reset and repeat.
With the dip, your complete bodyweight is in play — you’re suspended on the parallel bars, compared to the push-up where some of your bodyweight is supported by your feet. Here, you’ll seriously recruit your triceps, which are essential for all pressing movements.
Working your triceps in tandem with your chest will help strengthen your powerful pressing muscles in unison for improved benching strength.
Benefits of the Dip
- You’ll strengthen the triceps and chest — two key pressing muscles — together.
- The dip can be scaled with resistance bands to assist or weight plates with a dip belt to make it more challenging.
- You’ll utilize 100 percent of your bodyweight, which is far more than what you lift during a push-up.
How to Do the Dip
Grab the dip bar firmly and get at the top of the dip position, with tight upper back and shoulder blades squeezed together. Angle your torso slightly forward. Bend your elbows as they tuck inward towards the sides of your torso. Lower yourself down until your elbows bend at about 90 degrees. Press through the handles and bring your body upright to the top of the dip.
You cannot go as heavy with the dumbbell bench press as the barbell variation, but performing it hard and heavy will improve your bench press. You’ll be controlling two dumbbells, each one lifted independently.
This combats imbalances between sides, leading to better development of the chest and triceps. Plus, the dumbbells give you more freedom of movement and high intensity at a lower weight, giving your joints a break from the barbell.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Bench Press
- Because you’re lifting each dumbbell separately, you’ll go a long way to fighting off imbalances between arms.
- Dumbbells give you a high intensity at a lower weight to help you improve triceps and chest strength.
- This move gives your wrists, elbows, and shoulder joints a break from the barbell while still training the same movement.
How to Do the Dumbbell Bench Press
Adjust the weight bench to your preferred angle, lean over, and pick up each dumbbell. Place each dumbbell on your knees. Use your legs to drive the dumbbells back towards you while pressing the dumbbells up. Lower the weights, keeping your elbows at 45 degrees. Then, push the dumbbells back up and reset and repeat.
The JM press is said to be the creation of JM Blakey while he was getting his lifts in at Westside Barbell and destroying bench press records along the way. This lift is a hybrid between the close-grip bench press and the skull crusher, and Blakey himself used it to strengthen his lockout (and his triceps game).
Using your chest allows you to heft a lot more weight than you can with the traditional skull crusher. The shorter ROM also kicks in to allow you to heft a bigger load.
Benefits of the JM Press
- Because the JM Press involves the chest, you can use more weight than a skull crusher for improved triceps lockout strength.
- The reduced range of motion allows you to use more load than other bench press accessory exercises on this list.
- It improves the size and strength of your triceps, which will directly impact your bench press strength.
How to Do The JM Press
Set up the same as you would for a close-grip bench press but make sure the barbell is directly above your upper chest. Use either a thumbless or regular grip. Keep your elbows at 45 degrees from your body when bringing the barbell towards you. Make sure your wrists stay neutral. Keep lowering down until your forearms touch your biceps. Let the bar roll back about one inch to keep your elbows pointed. Press the bar back to the starting position.
The chest flye can be performed with a wide range of equipment, including dumbbells, resistance bands, or a cable machine. However you perform this flye, it takes the triceps out of the move and stretches your chest muscles for a more extensive range of motion.
This gives you better hypertrophy potential, which can help improve strength off your chest.
Benefits of the High Cable Fly
- The constant resistance of the cable machine keeps consistent tension on the chest muscles as opposed to dumbbell variations.
- Flye variations like this one help strengthen your bench press off the chest.
- You’ll strengthen and add muscle to your chest while giving your anterior shoulders a much-needed break.
How to Do the High Cable Fly
Set the handles at the highest level at both ends of the cable machine. Stand in the center with a staggered stance and take hold of both handles. Lean your torso, keep your spine neutral, and bend your elbows. Keeping your core tight, pull both handles down and across your body. Squeeze your chest muscles at the end. Slowly reverse to the start position, keeping the bend in your elbows. Repeat.
An inverted barbell row targets your upper back and lat exercises. Performing this back-builder with a TRX suspension has a few advantages over the barbell version. The TRX doesn’t lock you into an over or underhand grip — you can shift your hands as needed. This is easier on your wrists, elbows, and shoulder joints because of their freedom of movement.
The TRX also provides inherent instability, which will improve your core stability and train your shoulder stabilizers more than the barbell version. Strengthening the upper back with any inverted row variations sets the table for a better bench press because it supports a better bar path.
Benefits of the TRX Inverted Row
- The TRX inverted row strengthens your upper back, which sets a solid foundation for your press because it helps keep the barbell on the correct pressing path.
- This inverted row variation is easily progressed or regressed according to the lifter’s strength level. Put your feet closer to the anchor point to involve more of your bodyweight, while stepping farther from the anchor point will require you to lift less weight.
- TRX’s instability strengthens your shoulder stabilizers, which is important for a solid, healthy bench press.
How to Do the TRX Inverted Row
Grip the TRX with your preferred grip. Hang down directly under the TRX handles with your chest up and shoulders down. Squeeze your glutes and engage your upper back so your torso forms a straight line. Pull your body up to the handles below your chest. Slowly lower down. Reset and repeat.
The trap bar variation of the floor press offers your joints a break while lifting heavy. Pressing from the floor with the trap bar limits your ROM, allowing you to move more weight.
With a neutral grip and less range of motion, you’re creating a more stable pressing environment. Your wrists, elbows, and shoulders are all stacked over one another for a strong base.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Floor Press
- The trap bar floor press puts less stress on your upper body joints and allows you to add more resistance than the dumbbell variation.
- You’ll use a neutral grip, which may allow you to press even if shoulder discomfort is an issue.
- Because of minimal lower body involvement and reduced ROM, this variation helps improve your lockout strength.
How to Do the Trap Bar Floor Press
Set up the trap bar on the squat rack with flat handles down and the D-handles up. Grab the flat handles. Unrack the trap bar with your wrists neutral. Slowly lower until your upper arms touch the floor. Press back up until lockout.
There are many single-arm row variations, with the single-arm dead stop row being one of them. Single-arm dumbbell rows help lifters even out any upper back imbalances that may develop between sides. You’ll get some extra core work in the form of lateral stability.
The dead stop component means that you’ll go through a more extended range of motion. Because of the pause on the floor to rest your grip, you’ll be able to go heavy for more muscle growth.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Dead Stop Row
- The pause on the floor gives your joints a quick break and allows you to use a heavier weight.
- The pause takes away the muscle’s stretch reflex, so your muscles work harder on the concentric part of the lift.
- Training your upper back one side at a time combats imbalances between sides, reducing injury risk and keeping your shoulders healthier for benching.
How to Do the Single-Arm Dead Stop Row
Using a workout bench for support is better than the dumbbell rack, because you’ll get in the way of the other lifters. Get into a good hinge position and aim to feel any stretch in your hamstrings, not your low back. Place the dumbbell on the floor and brace your non-working hand on the bench. Pull up towards your hip, keeping your shoulders down and chest up. Lower with control until the weight reaches the floor. Pause and repeat.
A close-grip bench press has you lift a bar with your hands set shoulder-width apart. This grip orientation shifts the load more to your triceps and less to your chest.
You won’t be able to lift as much weight with the close-grip bench press, but you’ll strengthen your triceps for improved size and lockout strength. Plus, with elbows more tucked in, you will take the onus off of your shoulder joints.
Benefits of the Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press
- It directly targets your triceps for more growth and strength.
- A close-grip press will have you develop more pressing power at the top of the exercise.
- The close grip puts more tension on your inner chest for more even muscle development.
How to Do the Close-Grip Barbell Bench Press
Set yourself up as for a flat bench press, but place your hands inside shoulder-width. Keep your elbows tucked into your body. Pull the bar out of the rack and stabilize it over your chest. Pull your elbows inwards as the bar descends to your chest. Once you have touched your chest, press through your palms to lift the weight back up.
Spoto presses are paused bench presses with the barbell stopping about an inch above your pecs. Staying in this challenging position takes the stretch reflex out of the muscle, so you have to work harder to press the barbell away from chest.
The pause reduces the stretch you get at the bottom of your bench, forcing you to maintain greater tension and work through the sticking points of many lifters — the bottom and middle of the press.
Benefits of the Spoto Press
- The Spoto press builds strength and speed in the bench press while teaching you how to maintain tension throughout your whole body.
- You can strengthen your triceps when you use a narrower grip.
- It helps you strengthen weak points in your bench press for better strength and technique.
How to Do the Spoto Press
Set up and perform as you would for your regular barbell bench press. Slowly lower the bar until an inch above your chest. Pause for a second while maintaining tension in your pecs, arms, and upper chest. Drive the bar up until lockout. Reset and repeat.
Using partial rep exercises like the pin press can increase muscle development and force output of your pressing muscles and help boost your bench press numbers. The key here is to find your sticking point in your bench press and attack it with the pin press.
Set the pins in the squat rack just below your sticking point and lift the barbell from there. Unlike the Spoto press, this exercise takes the eccentric muscle contraction out and focuses on concentric muscle contractions to overcome sticking points.
Benefits of the Pin Press
- The pin press improves the size and strength of your triceps as the reduced ROM improves your lockout strength.
- This pressing variation allows you to focus on your sticking point at the exact ROM it occurs.
- Strengthening the weaker points in your bench helps you lift more weight overall, increasing your strength and hypertrophy potential.
How to Do the Pin Press
Find your sticking point — where you tend to fail in your bench press. Set up the pins in the squat rack just below that sticking point. Get tight in your setup. Lower the weight to the pins. Once you’ve hit the pins, press the weight powerfully. Lower the weight back down with control and repeat.
Anatomy of the Chest And Triceps
Although your upper back and deltoids play a role in the bench press, the chest and triceps are the muscles primarily concerned with improving the bench press.
Your chest kind of resembles a fan, made up of the pectoralis major and minor. Training your chest from various angles with different tools (like cables, dumbbells, and barbells) will improve muscle development and strength.
The triceps, technically known as the triceps brachii, has three heads — long, medial, and lateral. They all connect at your elbow. The common mission of these three triceps’ heads is to extend your elbow, making them very useful for the final push of your pressing exercises.
When your elbow breaks 90 degrees, it’s all triceps, which is why this muscle plays a significant role in your lockout strength.
Programming Bench Press Accessory Training
How often you should train the bench press depends on your lifting experience. If you are a beginner with less than a year of training under your belt, then aiming for 12 weekly sets — including accessory exercises — is a great starting point.
If you’re an intermediate trainer with one to four years of lifting experience, you can bump your bench volume (including accessory exercise) to 14 to 16 sets per week. For a veteran gymgoer, 16 to 20 weekly sets are more in order. Because the chest is a larger muscle, you can train it more frequently than your shoulders and arms.
But keep in mind that your muscles usually need between 48 to 72 hours to recover, especially from intense sessions. If strength and muscle are your goals, then you can train the bench around two to three times per week. This frequency is the sweet spot for the majority of experienced lifers.
Bench Press Accessory Exercise Selection
With a wide range of accessory exercises, it is best to focus on your bench’s weaknesses and attack them with gusto. If you feel your triceps are a weak point and you are having trouble with your lockout, some close-grip bench presses, pin presses, or the JM press need to be your go-to accessory moves.
If you’re slow off the chest or in the middle of your press, some Spoto presses, plyo push-ups, or the pin press in the low position need to be a part of your accessory routine. Training them once or twice a week and these weaknesses will become a strength.
Bench Press Accessory Sets and Reps
There are exercises on this list that train similar traits like lockout strength and speed off the chest. When training to strengthen those weaknesses, it is best to spend more time there and not less so. Whether you’re training for strength or muscle growth, either more reps or more sets work best.
- For Strength: For the weighted exercises on this list, three to five sets of three to six reps work.
- For Muscle Growth: Do three to four sets of six to 12 reps.
- For Endurance: For the bodyweight exercises on this list, do two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps, controlling the eccentric portion of the lifts.
There is an inverse relationship between resistance and reps. When resistance goes up, reps go down and vice-versa. Start at the lower rep range, build up to the upper rep range, then add load. When you’re ready, start this process again.
Bench Accessory Training Tips
It may be attractive to train the barbell bench press frequently — but with the barbell locking your joints into a specific range of motion, you can get too much of a good thing. It may be best to cycle through different chest exercises, using another tool to give your upper body joints a break.
Use the following tips to get the most out of your bench training.
Don’t Forget the Warm-Up
As tempting as it is to jump-start on the bench and get going right away, performing an upper body warm-up will get the blood moving through the joints. You’ll also get your shoulder and elbow joints ready for action.
Watch Your Elbows
Improving your triceps’ size and strength will enhance lockout strength and flex appeal. But be mindful that the triceps-focused exercise on this list can stress your elbow joints. Pay attention to elbow discomfort and make sure to change exercises to prevent overuse injuries from occurring.
Change Things Up
Many bench accessory exercises train the same weakness, like lockout strength with close grip bench press or JM press. To avoid training boredom, overuse injuries, and plateauing, it helps to cycle through the exercise on this list every four to six weeks.
Train for Strength and Muscle
A bigger muscle is often also a stronger muscle. It pays to train your chest for strength and muscle as both will improve your bench press prowess. Integrate strength and hypertrophy cycles into your program for best results.
Bigger Chest for the Win
Hammering away when you have plateaued on the bench press is no fun. It’s better to identify your bench press weakness and then attack it to improve your chest’s strength and appearance.
To improve your bench press, you do need to bench more. But you also need to train smart. Using the accessory exercises on this list, you will do both. Then you’ll truly be ready to flex.
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