We examined anonymized data of tens of thousands of members to find the most effective strategies to boost your progress.
Whether you jump into your workout every Monday ready for an epic chest day, or you’re simply trying to build balanced total-body strength, the bench press is likely a go-to exercise in your routine. While most beginners see quick improvements in strength when they first start any new program or workout, it’s important to understand how to maximize your gains within the first 12 weeks and beyond.
So Tonal’s data scientists and performance analysts studied anonymous data of thousands of members in search of trends that can support your journey to push big weight with an effective game plan. Here are four strategies to help you build a bigger bench, and the performance data and research that support them.
1. Find Your Sweet Spot For Sets
Specificity is essential to improving bench press strength—performing various chest exercises week after week is a surefire way to see results. Frequency also matters. That means regularly performing chest exercises, including the bench press, alternating bench press, single-arm bench press, chest flies, incline/decline flies, and kneeling single-arm chest press. Too little might not be enough strength stimulus, and too much may risk overtraining.
“Frequent” exercisers, those who perform 8 to 12 sets of weekly chest exercises, see the largest strength gains on their bench press. The “very frequent” exercisers, 12+ sets per week, see the same increase for six weeks, however, their strength gain dips below the “frequent” exercisers after that. In other words, more isn’t always better. After a while, that heavy volume can catch up to you and cause strength deficits in the long run.
The graph below breaks down the bench press strength gains based on average frequency of performing chest exercises.
Performing less than 4 sets per week showed a noticeable drop in improvements in strength and even 4 to 8 sets per week fell below the strength gains of more frequent exercisers. Research shows performing around 8 sets per week is the sweet spot for maximizing strength and Tonal’s performance data confirms, recommending 8 to 12 sets per week to improve your bench press.
2. Isolate Your Triceps For Synergistic Strength
While your pectoralis major(chest) muscles are the prime movers in the bench press, don’t sleep on the triceps brachii, a powerful elbow extensor that helps you get the bar up. The bench press can only be performed if the chest and triceps work together in synergy, so strengthening the triceps would only help your performance on the bench.
The frequency of performing isolated triceps exercises (think: triceps extensions, skull-crushers, and kickbacks) also makes a difference in strength gains in the bench press. The graph below shows exercisers who performed three or more triceps exercises per week achieved greater strength gains on the bench than exercisers who performed less than three sets.
While the gains seem neck and neck for a while, after six weeks, there is a noticeable increase in the exercisers performing three or more sets. By incorporating at least 3 sets of triceps isolation exercises into your weekly routine, you can improve your bench press strength by over 8 percent.
3. Add Chains to Boost Power and Gain Strength
Adding chains to barbell lifts is common in powerlifting to build maximal strength and power—and the research and data show that using chains is also an effective method for boosting your bench press.
Here’s how it works: Traditional chains pool on the floor and attach to each end of the barbell. As you press up, each link comes off the floor, resulting in a heavier weight at the top of the movement (typically the easier part) and lower resistance at the bottom. Without chains, the bottom of the bench press is the point at which it’s hardest to push the weight and thus the most vulnerable position on the shoulder and shoulder girdle. That’s where the chains offer the least resistance so you can confidently explode upward.
The graph below shows bench press improvements in exercisers who used the Chains Mode feature on Tonal versus those who performed traditional bench presses on the trainer. The Tonal Chains feature functions the same way bulky chains do in the gym, but it can be activated simply by pressing a button.
During the first three weeks or so, both groups experienced similar results. After three weeks, the Chains users surpassed the non-Chains users and after six weeks, Chains users made as much as 8 percent progress in strength gains on their bench press over the non-users. Adding on Chains after your third week of lifting can spike your strength by maximizing power and strength during different phases of the lift.
4. Lower Your Rep Range, Increase the Weight
Research shows using lower repetitions and heavier weight in your sets is a great strategy for strength goals. In fact, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, an organization that informs professional and collegiate standards, supports this guideline in most populations from elite athletes to lifelong recreational exercisers.
This graph demonstrates that after the first week, exercisers who used a lower rep range, specifically between 5 to 8 repetitions, improved their bench press strength over the group who completed 10 or more repetitions per set.
On Tonal, the weight automatically increases for lower rep counts and decreases for higher rep counts to ensure you get enough strength stimulus in every workout. The volume may be equal at the end of the workout, but if improving your max bench press weight is your goal, reducing reps and ratcheting up the weight is the way to go.
As you set your sets, reps, and load, you want to slowly increase the weight using progressive overload so that your body is adapting to a new demand over time. Tonal’s digital weight does all the heavy lifting for you by automatically making those changes to your lift as you get stronger. Or you can opt for a four-week program like Better Bench, a traditional program that will help you perfect your press.
The bottom line: The most effective ways to achieve bench press progression & growth is to go well beyond the actual bench press.
- Weekly consistency is key: Perform 8 to 12 sets of chest exercises throughout the week.
- Don’t sleep on your triceps: Perform at least 3 sets of triceps isolation exercises per week.
- Use chains to build explosive power: Using a variable resistance system is a proven way to increase strength.
- Lift heavier, with lower reps: Sets of 5 to 8 reps at a heavy resistance may be the sweet spot for building bench strength.