Shortly after I implemented a structured warm-up routine for my bench press workouts, I felt more prepared to handle heavier weights confidently.
Here are the 4 things you should do to warm up for bench press:
- Start with a general warm-up to increase body temperature
- Pick mobility drills that increase blood flow to restricted muscles
- Perform a dynamic stretching routine to improve range of motion
- Use activation exercises to prime the stabilizing muscles
Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of any of these things before. When I first stepped into the gym I had no idea — I either did a sub-par warm-up routine or skipped it altogether. Since then, I’ve researched how to effectively warm-up for bench press, and found that going through each of the phases above was shown to increase both my strength and performance.
So, let me share what I learned and hopefully you too can get the most out of your bench press workouts.
1. General Warm-Up
The purpose of the general warm-up is to increase your core body temperature through some form of light cardiovascular training.
This step might seem superficial, but there’s good research to suggest that this phase of the warm-up can boost performance, especially when it comes to max strength.
A study by Barroso et al. (2006) concluded that a low intensity warm-up of 15-minutes was superior in improving 1 rep max strength when compared with other styles — “low intensity” was defined as breaking a ‘light sweat’. The difference in 1 rep max strength was 3-4% higher for the group that performed this style of warm-up.
My favorite way to break a ‘light sweat’ for bench press is either by doing 15-minutes on the stationary bike or rower. Sometimes I do a combination of both the bike and rower, but I never skip the general warm-up.
If you’re rushed on time and can’t fit a 15-min general warm-up into your routine, then other studies have suggested that even 5-minutes can have a positive impact on performance (Wilson et al., 2012).
The lesson: skipping the general warm-up is one of the top bench press mistakes.
Check out my article on bench press cues to learn how to best leverage your technique under max loads.
2. Mobility Drills For Bench Press
By doing mobility drills you increase the blood flow to your muscles and restore motion.
Mobility drills are performed by using self-massage therapy techniques, such as using a foam roller or lacrosse ball to apply pressure to the muscle.
When a muscle is tight it limits the mobility at the level of the joint. Every exercise in the gym will require a certain level of mobility to perform. In the bench press, you’ll need to have requisite mobility through your shoulders and thoracic spine to bring the bar through a full range of motion.
It’s important to know that performing mobility drills through the use of self-massage therapy techniques will only restore motion temporary. This means that you can increase range of motion for the specific workout, but the benefits of foam rolling doesn’t last (from a range of motion perspective). Therefore, you’ll need additional interventions to make long-term progress in your mobility following your workout (such as static stretching) (Peacock et al., 2014).
A lot of people actually overdo this stage of the warm-up, and spend far too long doing mobility drills. My recommendation is to pick 1-3 exercises listed below, apply pressure to the muscle, and perform 5-10 strokes for 60-90-seconds. Feel free to choose different mobility drills over time.
Lie sideways on the foam roller and apply pressure on the lat muscle. Roll areas that you feel tight whether that’s higher or lower.
The pec major is a bigger muscle group. Areas of the upper pec, closer to the shoulder, will be tighter, so start there and roll inwards to the midline of the body.
The pec minor sits beneath the arm pit. It might be harder to apply pressure on the pec minor against a wall, so do this one on the floor and apply appropriate pressure.
Move your upper and mid-back through flexion and extension on the foam roller. You can also apply pressure to the erector spinae, which sit on either side of your spine.
Check out my article on the top bench press progressions to take your lift from a beginner to advanced level.
3. Dynamic Stretching for Bench Press
Dynamic stretching will help you lengthen the muscle and improve its function prior to lifting.
There are two different kinds of stretching: dynamic and static.
Dynamic stretching is when you move your muscles in and out of a range of motion 15-30 times.
Static stretching is when you hold your muscles in a range of motion for a prescribed amount of time (30-60 seconds).
The type of stretching you want to do prior to lifting is dynamic stretching.
In a study by McMillian et al. (2006), dynamic stretching showed to improve performance across a number of outcomes, including strength, speed, and power, when performed before the workout.
Here are two routines that you can implement into your bench press warm-up. The first one is a bodyweight dynamic stretching routine. The second one uses a wooden dowel. Each routine puts the shoulder through flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, and rotation. Pick one routine and move through each range of motion 15-30 times.
Dynamic Stretching For Bench Press (Bodyweight Version)
Dynamic Stretching For Bench Press (Dowel Version)
4. Activation Exercises for Bench Press
Activation exercises stabilize the smaller muscle groups that support the prime movers.
In the bench press, the prime movers are the chest, shoulders, and triceps. However, there are several smaller muscle groups in the rotator cuff and upper back that help stabilize the movement and allow the prime movers to do their job to the fullest. As such, we want to prime these stabilizing muscles so that they’re ready for the main workout.
From the list below, I recommend selecting 1-2 exercises below and perform 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps. Feel free to rotate through different activation exercises over time, and ensure you’re moving through the range of motion slowly so that you’re not over-compensating for the bigger muscle groups.
Don’t ‘overdo it’ with too many activation exercises. You simple want to prime the stabilizers and keep them fresh for the main work.
Band Pull Apart
Prone Trap 3 Raise
Scapular Push Up
DB Serratus Pullover
Activation exercises can help prevent shaking in the bench press. If you have that problem, read my complete guide.
If you follow each of these phases of the warm-up it should take you no longer than 15-minutes. The benefit of adopting a sound warm-up routine is that it prepares your body for the main workout, boosts performance, and reduces the likelihood of injury. While you may develop a unique style of warm-up based on your own personal preferences, you should always include, to some degree, a general warm-up, mobility drills, dynamic stretching, and activation exercises.
If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend you read the Ultimate Guide to Warming Up for Powerlifting, since it will cover these concepts in further detail, as well as give you a step-by-step guide on how to do a ‘barbell warm-up’, which wasn’t covered in this article.
What To Read Next
Barroso, R., Silva-Batista, C., Tricoli, V. Roschel, H., Ugrinowitsch, C. (2013). The Effects of Different Intensities and Durations of The General Warm-Up on Leg Press 1RM. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27(4), 1009-1013.
McMillian, D., Moore, J., Hatler, B., Taylor, D. (2006) Dynamic vs. Static Stretching Warm Up: The Effect on Power And Agility Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 20(3) 492-499.
Peacock, C., Krein, D., Silver, T., Sander, G., Carlowitz, K. (2014). An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release in The Form of Foam Rolling Improves Performance Testing. International Journal of Exercise Science. 7(3), 202-211.
Wilson, J., Marin, P., Rhea, M., Wilson, S., Loenneke, J., Anderson, J. (2012). Concurrent Training: A Meta-Analysis is Examining Interference of Aerobic And Resistance Exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 26(8), 2293-2307.