Editor’s Note: In this special feature, Tonal’s data scientists, Taylor Stein and Brandt Belson, share essential insights on how to improve bench press strength.
- Tonal has the world’s best dataset on strength training — so, we decided to dig into our numbers to see what we could learn about increasing bench press strength.
- Our insights will help you understand the optimum number of chest exercises to perform (around 8-12 sets weekly), as well as how to train an essential bench press accessory muscle group: the triceps (at least 3 sets weekly).
- Learn more about how variable resistance training techniques like chains, and heavier lifts with reps as low as five, can have the most impact on your bench press gains.
At Tonal, we have the best dataset in the world on strength training — detailed performance data on tens of thousands of users, going back multiple years, all working out with the same hardware. So, we decided to dig into the numbers and provide data-based insights on how to improve bench press strength. Our results showed that over 12 weeks, at least half of Tonal users increase their bench press gains by more than 20%. Now, we’re sharing what we know to help everyone improve their bench press strength.
Measuring bench press strength
Before we could understand how to improve bench press strength over time, we first needed a way to measure the difficulty of any given bench press set.
For example: we know that 10 reps of 50 lbs is more difficult than 12 reps of 20 lbs, but what about 12 reps of 45 lbs?
In order to appropriately compare sets, with varying numbers of repetitions and resistance, we calculated a one-rep equivalent using a standardized formula. Below are some examples of weight and rep combinations that all result in the same one-rep equivalent.
|Weight (lbs)||Reps||One-Rep Equivalent|
Now that we can evaluate bench press data, we can understand how Tonal users improve their bench press over time. To do this, we looked at the week each user first performed a bench press set and compared it to their bench press performance over their first 12 weeks.
Here, we can see our users’ typical bench press strength improvements over 12 weeks:
Based on this chart, we can make two observations:
- Tonal users tend to make steady progress in their bench press over their first 12 weeks.
- While the rate of strength increase gradually slows down over time, it still continues to go up.
The above chart shows the typical, or median, increase in bench press strength. At least half of these users made more progress. So, let’s get into the four data-backed ways you can get more strength gains.
1. How to improve bench press strength: the sweet spot for sets
To increase bench press strength, you need to perform this movement week after week. But, how many times? Let’s see what the data says about the perfect number of sets.
We grouped our users based on the average number of chest exercise sets they performed per week. The graph below shows how these groups improved on their bench press over a 12-week period.
A few interesting observations:
- Tonal members performing fewer than four sets of weekly chest exercises made noticeably less improvement to their bench press over their first 12 weeks.
- Members performing 8-12 sets of weekly chest exercises saw the largest strength gains on their bench press.
- The “Frequent” chest-exercising group of members performed very similarly to those that performed 12+ sets of chest exercises per week, highlighting that there are not only diminishing, but also negative returns for over 12 sets per week.
If these additional sets of chest exercises aren’t helping our bench press, what should we do instead? In the next section, we’ll show you how adding triceps exercises into your weekly routine can help with bench press gains.
2. Meet your new favorite accessory muscle: triceps
While the chest may be the star of the bench press, there’s an entire supporting cast of other muscle groups that lead to a strong performance, and triceps get the biggest shout out.
To conduct our analysis, we grouped members by how frequently they did triceps exercises such as skull crushers, kickbacks, and tricep extensions. To learn about the impact of triceps exercises on bench press gains, we analyzed the “Moderate” group — individuals performing 4-8 bench press sets per week — as it was a larger sampling.
While it’s quite small to start, after six weeks, there appears to be a noticeable difference. By incorporating at least three sets of triceps isolation exercises into your weekly routine, you can improve your bench press strength by over 8%.
Pro Tip: If you want to hit your triceps for bench press gains, check out Coach Jared’s Efficient Upper Body workout.
3. Use chains to build explosive power
When training with traditional equipment, like barbells, the amount of weight you can lift is limited by your weakest point in the move. For the bench press, this is at the beginning of the rep. In gyms, some creative folks found ways to lift heavier by using chains for their bench press as well as other movements.
Tonal’s Coach Nicolette explains that adding chains to the bench press “helps to increase power by adding extra load to the easiest part of the lift. This creates a situation where you can press more explosively due to the extra support from the added weight, and also helps keep the joints safe when working on explosive power.”
Using chains has been a strategy for increasing bench press strength for many years, and our data also validates this. Adding chains results in heavier weight at the top of the movement, and lower weight at the bottom.
However, adding chains is not so easy in the gym — it requires additional bulky and noisy equipment. With Tonal, it’s incredibly simple and requires no additional equipment. With Chains, one of Tonal’s dynamic weight modes, you can simulate the feeling of real chains, getting the benefits at the touch of a single button. Plus, you can use this dynamic weight mode with any movement — not just barbell movements.
Pro Tip: If you want to take Chains for a spin, and need a great workout that includes bench pressing, look no further than Coach Paul’s More Gains with Chains workout — the name speaks for itself.
To understand the impact of Chains on bench press gains, we analyzed members who used Chains at least 15% of the time, and those that don’t.
Over the first six weeks, both groups had similar results, with Chains users making slightly more progress. However, from week six, Chains users make 8% more gains with their bench press over those who don’t. Making the bench press more challenging with additional weight towards the end of each rep pays off in the long run.
Pro Tip: The other way to lift more in your bench press is by utilizing our Smart Flex technology. Smart Flex can dynamically adjust weight, down to the millisecond, for the most effective bench press rep every time, making it possible to lift in a way that isn’t possible with dumbbells or traditional weights. As a result, you will get stronger, faster, in your bench press. Read more.
There’s one more thing that can help you improve bench press gains: the number of reps you do or don’t do!
4. How to improve bench press strength with the right number of reps
Have you considered how the number of reps in your sets affects your strength gains over time? There have been many scientific studies aimed at answering this question, and the general consensus seems to be that lower-rep sets, with a higher weight, results in significantly more strength improvement than high-rep training with a lower weight. Let’s put this idea to the test by analyzing Tonal members’ bench press improvements over time.
For this, we’ll group members in to the following two categories:
Our results show that:
- Lower-rep ranges with a higher weight leads to more strength gains.
- It’s worth noting that while doing sets with lower reps and more weight may lead to more strength gains, our higher-rep members see amazing bench press improvements, too!
Pro Tip: If you’re training with Tonal, you can use our dynamic weight mode, Spotter, to lift heavier. If you start to fail on your last couple of heavy reps, Spotter will reduce the weight. It’s just like having a spotter at the gym to help you complete your last rep or two.
The four essential takeaways you need to improve bench press strength
If you’ve been wondering about how to improve your bench press strength for some time, know that a concerted and consistent effort will lead to gains, especially if you’re training with Tonal and taking advantage of dynamic weight features like Spotter, Chains and Smart Flex.
According to our data, you can make serious gains by implementing the following to your bench press:
- Perform about 8-12 sets of chest exercises per week. More than this could lead to negative returns —overtraining is real!
- Don’t sleep on those triceps! Perform at least three sets per week of triceps isolation exercises.
- Use chains to build explosive power. It helps to have Tonal’s Chains because it takes the guesswork out of doing this with the click of a button.
- Do sets with 5-8 reps and lift with a higher weight. It may be challenging, but lifting heavy is important.
If you own a Tonal, you can start working on bench press strength gains with the following programs:
- Better Bench
- Brute Strength
- Go Big or Go Home
- Lean In
- Radical Muscle Rock*
- Raising The Barbell
- Pep in Your Step
- True Strength*
- 4 Weeks To Fat Loss
- Perform a Pushup
*Programs that satisfy all four of our essential takeaways to improve bench press strength.