If you want to increase your bench press, you need to identify weak points within the range of motion, and then implement strategies to get stronger.
This is especially the case when your bench press is weak off the chest because you’ll start to fail the movement in the bottom range of motion every time the weight gets heavy.
So what should you do if your bench press is weak off the chest? My top 6 tips are:
- Build Your Pec Strength
- Increase The Consistency of Your Touchpoint
- Increase Eccentric Bar Speed
- Experiment With Changes In Your Grip
- Cue “Chest Up” To The Barbell
- Dedicate One Day To Building Strength Off The Chest
This article is the ultimate guide to helping you develop strength in the bench press if you’re weak off the chest.
I’ll cover how to know if you’re weak off the chest, the reasons why you could be weak off the chest, and a step-by-step approach on what to do if you’re weak off the chest.
Let’s get started!
Are You Weak Off The Chest In Your Bench Press?
Being “weak off the chest” in the bench press could mean several things.
So in this section, I want to give you some tell-tale signs of when your bench press would be considered weak off the chest.
If you have any of these signs in your bench press, then you most certainly have a strength issue at the bottom-end range of motion.
If that’s the case, you’ll want to keep reading to know why these issues are happening and how to correct them.
Here are the 3 signs to know if you are weak off the chest in the bench press:
Sign #1: Getting Crushed On The Chest
“Getting crushed” on the chest means that the barbell comes crashing down on your chest as you lower the weight.
The barbell is supposed to come down to your chest in a controlled manner. You should touch your chest and avoid having the barbell heave, sink, or bounce on your chest before driving upward.
In other words, you should be showing the utmost control of the barbell as you transition from the eccentric (lowering) to concentric (upward) range of motion.
If you find that you can start a set by having good control, but then as you fatigue and get to your final few reps you can’t help but bounce the barbell off your chest, then this would be a sign that you’re weak in the bottom-end.
Sign #2: Can’t Maintain Elbow Position Related To The Bar
When the barbell is on the chest in the bench press, your elbows should either be directly stacked underneath of the barbell, or slightly in front.
What you want to avoid is having an elbow position where your elbows flare behind the barbell.
This will cause too much internal shoulder rotation, putting a lot of loading demand on smaller muscle groups in your shoulders in the bottom-end range of motion, which should otherwise be the job of the pecs (not the shoulders).
I wrote an entire article called Should Your Elbows Be In Or Out In The Bench Press? So, if you’re unsure where your elbows should be while benching, then give this article a read.
Sign #3: Always Failing Off The Chest Under Heavy Loads
If every time you max out you find that your sticking or failing point is either directly on your chest or a few inches above, then this is a sign that your bench press is weak in the bottom-end range of motion.
While maxing out your bench press should be done infrequently (only every 2-4 months), it’s a good opportunity to diagnose movement deficiencies.
Based on how the movement looks, and where you fail within the range of motion, you can determine what areas of weakness need improvement.
If you consistently stall on your chest while benching with heavy weights, then you need to start focusing on breaking through this plateau with a targetted approach.
Why Is Your Bench Press Weak Off The Chest?
Now that you know how to identify whether your bench press is weak off the chest, let’s now talk about why this might be occurring.
These are the 5 most common reasons why your bench press is weak off the chest:
Reason #1: Weak Contributing Muscle Groups
One of the main reasons why strength is an issue off the chest is because your pec muscles are relatively weaker compared with the rest of your upper body.
It’s important to understand how each muscle in the upper body contributes to the bench press at different stages throughout the movement.
If you’re unsure, you need to 100% check out my article on what muscles are used in the bench press. I breakdown how muscle contribution changes based on the range of motion, grip, and angle of the bench press.
For the purposes of this article, if you’re weak off the chest, it means your pecs are a limiting muscle group and you need to work on specific exercises to get them stronger.
Know that not every ‘pec’ exercise will transfer to your bench press, so you’ll want to read below the exercises I recommend for improving pec strength in the bench press.
Reason #2: Poor Touchpoint
If you aren’t touching the barbell on your chest in the same place every rep then you are increasing the amount your muscles have to work to stabilize the barbell.
If that’s the case, then your bench press has inefficient technique and you need to work on improving the consistency of your touchpoint.
One way to know if you have a poor touchpoint is to rub some chalk on the center of the barbell. Then, when you start benching, the chalk will rub off on your t-shirt.
If you notice that the ‘chalk spots’ have a large variance, sometimes higher on your chest, sometimes lower on your chest, then you have a poor touchpoint, and it’s contributing to being weaker off the chest in the bench press.
Reason #3: Bringing The Bar Down Too Slow
You can be weak in the bottom-end range of the bench press if you lower the barbell to your chest too slow.
According to a muscle activation study by Duffey (2008), the pecs are activated 2X as much on the descent compared with the ascent. This suggests that the pecs are highly activated when used to slow the bar.
Therefore, if you are bringing the barbell down too slow, then you might be wasting your pec strength prior to when you need it the most, which is driving the barbell the first few inches off your chest.
With that said, you don’t want to bring the barbell down too fast either. If you want a more complete guide to tempo, then check out my guide on bench press tempo.
Reason #4: Grip Is Not Optimal
If your grip is not suited to your bench press style, then it may be contributing to your weakness off the chest.
The grip that you use can change the activation of different muscles in your upper body, which may help or hinder your strength issues off the chest.
- Too narrow, and you might not be utilizing the full strength of your pecs.
- Too wide, and you might be limiting how much your triceps can contribute to the press.
If you haven’t thought about your grip before as something that can be optimized then it’s worth experimenting with a different grip choice.
We’ll cover how to experiment with your bench press grip below so that you can find some quick wins on improving the strength off your chest.
Reason #5: Lack Of Bench Press Arch
If you bench press with a flat back, i.e. no bench press arch, then you are increasing the overall range of motion of the movement, and ultimately, how hard your pecs need to work to get the barbell off your chest.
A bench press arch is a specialized powerlifting technique that focuses on elevating the chest as high as possible throughout the movement.
The higher your chest is while benching, the more you reduce the range of motion the barbell needs to travel, and the less your pecs need to work.
It’s a great way to “cheat” the movement, even though it’s a totally legitimate powerlifting technique. You can quickly gain strength off the chest by implementing this technique, especially if you are currently benching with a flat back.
What To Do When Your Bench Press Is Weak Off The Chest
In the previous section, I hope you identified at least one reason why you might be weak off your chest in the bench press.
Now that you’ve diagnosed your movement deficiency, we need to discuss the more practical aspects of “what to do” about it.
There are six strategies to implement when you’re weak off the chest in the bench press.
You don’t need to implement each of these into your training as it will depend on the reason why you’re weak to begin with.
But once you’ve identified why you’re weak, you can select the training strategies below that relate to your specific situation.
Here are the 6 tips for improving weakness off the chest in the bench press:
1. Build Your Pec Strength
If your pecs are weak you need to focus on exercises that build your pec strength specific to increasing your bench press.
In other words, while I think dumbbell flys and push-ups activate the pecs to a large extent, it doesn’t mimic the bench press movement pattern enough to transfer your strength adequately to the bench press.
What you need are exercises that both activate the pecs and at the same time mimic the bench press movement pattern.
I recommend the following 3 exercises for building your pec strength in the bench press:
Long Pause, Soft Touch Bench Press
The long pause, soft-touch bench press is when you bring the barbell down and pause it on your chest for 3-sec prior to pressing.
In addition, the ‘soft touch’ means that you’re pausing the barbell without ‘resting’ it on your chest. The goal is to keep the tension on your pecs throughout the pause.
This exercise creates greater loading demand on the pecs by placing a longer time under tension that the pecs need to activate.
It also teaches you how to stabilize and control the bench press on your chest, which is important for improving the consistency of your touchpoint.
So this exercise does double duty on increasing pec strength and refining your bench press touchpoint.
Protocol: 4-5 sets of 4-8 reps @ 60-70% of your 1 rep max
Wide Grip Bench Press
The wide grip bench press is when you purposely take a grip that is 3-5 finger lengths (per hand) wider than you would normally grip the barbell.
By taking a wider grip, you are taking away the contribution of your shoulders and triceps in the bench press, and placing greater loading demand on your pecs.
In other words, your pecs will need to work a lot harder in a wider grip compared with a narrower grip.
Protocol: 4-5 sets of 4-8 reps @ 60-70% of your 1 rep max
Chest Level Rack Starts
Rack starts are a bench press accessory that brings the barbell down but rather than touching your chest, it stops fully on the safety pins.
The weight completely de-loads on the pins. This places a large emphasis on your pecs to have to drive the barbell from a dead-stop without already having tension on your muscles.
The key part in setting up the rack start is making sure that the pins are set lower to the chest, so that it’s your pecs that need to work the hardest, not your shoulders or triceps.
Protocol: 4-5 sets of 3-5 reps @ 75-85% of 1 rep max.
2. Increase The Consistency of Your Touchpoint
One of the best ways to improve strength off your chest is to increase the consistency of your touchpoint.
The barbell should touch in the same place every single rep, no matter if it’s a warm-up or max weight.
The touchpoint should be somewhere between your nipples and sternum depending on how long your arms are and the grip you choose.
Very rarely would you want to have a touchpoint higher or lower than these points (nipples and sternum). However, even if you are within these two points, you don’t want to have a large variance rep-to-rep.
As such, I would only use a load where you can keep the touch-point consistent. In other words, you might find your touch-point becomes really inconsistent at 90%+ loads.
As such, I would spend 2-3 months honing your technique in sub-maximal ranges, ingraining the proper touch-point before increasing the load.
You should work to have a proper elbow position as well, wherein you’re naturally tucking your elbows slightly in front of the barbell as you lower it to your chest. If you’re not already doing a ‘slight tuck’ with your elbows, then your touchpoint will likely be inconsistent.
Read my article on Bench Press Cues to get an idea of how to cue your elbow position.
3. Increase Eccentric Bar Speed
Practice bringing the barbell down faster to your chest so that your pecs don’t get fatigued by the time you have to drive the barbell off your chest.
Bringing the barbell down quicker is an extremely advanced movement technique that takes a lot of practice to feel comfortable doing.
The key is not to rapidly increase your eccentric bar speed when you’re first starting to implement this technique. Aim to make really small improvements over a long period of time.
Also, recognize that there is such a thing as ‘too fast’.
You’ll know if you’re bringing the bar down too fast if you can’t maintain tension on your muscles or you lack control, i.e. you find that you can’t stabilize the barbell on your chest when it touches and you end up ‘bouncing’ the barbell rather than softly touching your sternum.
Broadly though, I would say most people can work on bringing the bar down faster. Practice with lighter loads and then keep working on it as the load gets heavier. You don’t want to revert back to bringing the bar down slowly when the load gets heavier though — so watch for that!
4. Experiment With Changes In Your Grip
Assess your grip on whether it’s too narrow, or too wide, and adjust accordingly.
Most people should be bench pressing in a grip that is twice the distance of their shoulders.
So if you measure your shoulders to be 40-inches apart, then you should place your hands on the barbell at 80-inches apart.
This is a general rule of thumb in powerlifting, so you’ll obviously see lifters take wider or narrower grips then this. But for your average lifter, if you’re falling too far outside this general rule, you may not be leveraging all of the muscle groups in your upper body effectively.
What I would do is adjust your grip so that you’re following the “2X the distance of your shoulders” rule, and then train like that for a couple of months to see if you’ve developed a stronger bottom-end range of motion.
In a lot of cases, lifters find they’re more powerful off the chest with the right grip.
5. Cue “Chest Up” To The Barbell
Maintaining a high chest position while bench pressing can reduce the loading demand on your pec muscles, and create a stronger bottom-end position.
In order to maintain a high chest position, you need to cue your chest to be as ‘high as possible’ throughout the entire set.
You might find that you’re able to keep your chest up over the first few reps, but then as you fatigue, you find your position starting to flatten.
You want to avoid flattening your back at all costs when you fatigue. In order to do that, you need to cue your chest to “meet the bar” as you’re lowering it to your chest.
So at the same time that you’re lowering the bar, you’re actively pushing your chest up to try and close the gap between your chest and the bar. You can facilitate this process by driving into your legs as hard as you can while benching pressing.
6. Dedicate One Day To Building Strength Off The Chest
Dedicate an entire workout to eliminating weakness off the chest in the bench press.
If you aren’t already bench pressing twice per week, then you need to increase your bench press frequency.
One of the workouts can simply be your regular bench press training. The other workout needs to be 100% focused around building strength off the chest.
This would look like doing a bench press variation that targets bottom end bench press strength (long pause bench press, wide grip bench press, or pin press).
If you have the opportunity to bench press three times per week, I would recommend using this additional day to practice the technique of bringing the bar down faster and increasing the consistency of your touch point. This would be a lighter day strictly focused on technique.
If you’re weak off the chest in the bench press it’s either because (1) you have weak contributing muscle groups, namely the pecs, or (2) you have inefficient technique, ranging from an inconsistent touch point, bringing the bar down to slow, lacking a bench press arch, or picking the wrong grip.
Improving your bench press strength off the chest will only happen after several months of training aimed at exercises and drills focused on the bottom-end range of motion.
In addition, making programming changes, like increasing your bench press frequency, can aid in such efforts.