I stared at the rack, terrified to slide underneath it and embarrass myself in the middle of a packed gym. Trembling, I wiggled myself under the bar while bouncing my heels off the ground with nervous energy. I wrapped my shaking fingers around the bar above me and visualised the heavy metal crashing down on me. With a bite of my lip, I closed my eyes as I lifted the bar away from the rack.
I lowered and raised the bar in front of my chest for what could barely be considered 10 repetitions, all the while questioning my form. With every ounce of strength within me, I returned the bar to the rack – but almost found myself trapped beneath when the left side failed to slot into place. I took a deep breath and sat up, wondering how on earth I was going to ever do that again.
Ahh… my first experience with the bench press. Like the majority of women, my chest was my weakest body part when I first began lifting weights. Although I could squat half my body weight from the get-go, it took me months before I could bench press anything more than the bar itself.
When I finally managed to add five kilogram plates to each side, it took me almost a year before I could increase my weight again. Since I began writing my own programs at the beginning of the year, I am now able to bench press with 15 kilograms on each side – 50 kilos in total – and my previous max is now my warm-up set.
So how did I increase my bench press by 20 kilograms in three months?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The months I spent stuck at 30 kilograms were, while frustrating, extremely important.
For women, it is essential to build up endurance in the chest muscles before you look to add weight. I’d say that unless you can press the bar alone for at least 20 reps, then you’re not ready to add weight.
To begin with, I did countless sets of 15 to 20 repetitions. I could only manage about 10 reps with the full-size Olympic bar, so I originally used the lighter bar in my gym.
For the first six months of my training, I only did three exercises: a barbell press, a dumbbell press and either a flye or a push up. One of the presses was on a flat bench, while the other was on an incline.
With high repetitions, three exercises of three to four sets was enough to completely exhaust my chest. I would walk around the next day unable to move my arms because my upper body was so sore. Minus one six-week program where I threw in a few eight rep sets, all my sets were above 10 repetitions.
Until you get to a point where you feel that you could comfortably add more weight to a bar you’re pressing for 10 repetitions, you must stick with it. Even when you think you’re there, you’re probably not. It is incredibly frustrating, and I can’t emphasise that enough.
It is not easy to go into the gym week after week and feel like you’re not making any improvement. But, one day, you’ll be ready.
Slowly – and I mean slowly – I began targeting a lower repetition range. I’d warm up with a 15 rep set, and then shoot for 10, 8 and even as few as 6 reps. During this time, I maintained my level of volume by adding in more exercises. I generally performed a barbell press, a dumbbell press, a machine press, and two flye exercises.
The first time you perform a lower number of reps for a barbell bench press is terrifying. If you can kick them up, I definitely recommend trying the heavier weight with dumbbells first as they can easily be dropped to the ground – a nicer alternative to being pinned screaming under a barbell.
During this time, you will see rapid improvements in the weight you’re lifting. At least every other week you should be able to increase the weight by a kilo or two, or beat your previous lift by one extra repetition.
Here are my three best tips for improving your bench:
- I’ve already said it throughout this post, but in case you weren’t reading properly: Be patient. Going heavy right away is useless when you don’t have any strength at all. The only time I believe in following high repetition training is for building up endurance, and you’re going to need a lot of it to become successful at benching. If you’re feeling weak and frustrated, know that you will get past it. Don’t give up, and don’t try to rush yourself forward when your body will not be able to handle the weight.
- Get a spotter. Any time you try to lift a personal best, ask someone to spot you for a minute. Since I’ve been training with Rob, my form has improved and my confidence to lift heavier has skyrocketed. Even if they don’t do anything, having comfort that someone is there to help if you overshoot a weight or aren’t performing optimally means a world of difference.
- Visualise the lift. I always visualise myself performing my big lifts before I do them, but even more so with bench presses. Before each set, I close my eyes for at least 30 seconds to pump myself up. I tell myself I know I can do it, and remind myself what I’ve done in the past. Any time I fail to focus in like this, I never make it. So, as cheesy as it sounds, you just have to picture yourself being successful first.
Here is the workout I did with Rob on Monday:
Flye machine: 3×15 @ 25 kgs
Flat barbell bench press: 1×15 @ 30kgs, 2×10 @ 40 kgs, drop set of 6 @ 50kgs, 6 @ 40 kgs, 6 @ 30 kgs, followed by as many reps as possible with just the bar itself
Incline dumbbell press: 2×12 @ 14kg, 2×8 @ 18kg
Incline dumbbell flye: 3×10 @ 10kg
Have you ever struggled with increasing your bench press? Do you have any extra tips?