Improving your bench press comes down to not only nailing your technique and benching more, but also doing exercises that can help you optimize your strength potential.
The 17 exercises to improve bench press strength are:
- Pin Press or Dead Press
- Incline Bench Press
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Chest Flys
- Deficit Push-Ups
- Overhead/Strict Press
- Band Pull Aparts/Reverse Flys
- Front and Lateral Raises
- Close Grip Bench Press
- Tate Press
- 2-Board Bench Press
- Tricep Pushdown
- Lat Pulldown
- Barbell Row
- Inverted Row
Generally speaking, you will need to bench press in order to get better at bench press; however, there are other exercises that will help build muscle and strength in key muscles and will ultimately help support your progress.
In this article we’ll discuss the various ways in which you can improve your bench strength, as well as, go through the best exercises for improving bench strength based on which muscle group the exercise focuses on. This approach will help you better select accessories based on your own personal weaknesses.
What is the Fastest Way to Improve Bench Press Strength?
Exercise Selection and Specificity
The fastest way to improve your bench press is through exercise selection. This means choosing relevant exercises that will transfer directly to the press or will build muscles that will then help you develop more strength in the press.
Exercise selection goes hand in hand with specificity which means that your training should be specific to your goals. In short, to bench press more weight you should be bench pressing.
However, beyond just bench pressing, there are other exercises you can select for yourself to work the upper body in a way that’s conducive to your goals.
Beyond exercise selection and just benching more frequently, your technique may also be what’s holding you back. If you fear this is something you need to address, check out some of our other articles that go into what you can do to fix it:
- What Is The Best Bench Press Bar Path? (Mistakes To Avoid)
- Bench Press Wrist Position: 5 Rules To Follow
- Top 19 Bench Press Mistakes (How To Avoid & Correct)
- How To Properly Do A Bench Press Lift Off (Step By Step)
- Where Should The Barbell Touch Your Chest On Bench Press?
- How To Breathe Correctly In The Bench Press (Step by Step)
Exercise Selection for Improving Bench Press
When it comes to exercise selection it’s important to understand the main muscle groups involved in the bench press, which include:
Normally I would recommend you have a balance of bench press accessories that cover off all these muscle groups, but if you find you are weak in a certain area and it’s holding back your strength, you may want to focus on it for your next block of training.
Also note that both growing the muscle as well as building strength in the muscles are valuable assets for your long-term progress, meaning you can implement several of these exercises with different rep schemes for results.
Chest Exercises to Improve Bench Press Strength
The chest is the most obvious muscle when we think of the bench press and is definitely the largest mover. An easy way to remember which exercises focus on the chest by breaking it down into 2 types of movements: presses and flys.
Typically fly movements are reserved for building muscle purposes while the infinite number of presses can be used for both muscle building and strength purposes.
1. Pin Press or Dead Press
The pin press and the dead press are two very similar exercises where you don’t place the barbell on your chest but rather on raised safeties.
The pin press is performed the same way as a bench press where the start and end position are with your arms locked out whereas a dead press starts and ends from the safeties.
These exercises both address building strength off the chest and are a great accessory choice. The dead press is a better choice if maintaining a good bar path is something you struggle with as well as not having strength at the chest.
2. Incline Bench Press
The incline bench press is another barbell bench press alternative to regular benching that places more emphasis on the upper region of the pec muscle as well as the shoulders.
Incline bench press is set up like a bench press except the bench is placed at about 55 degrees and can be both a main lift to swap out with your normal bench or an accessory you do after a few sets of regular benching.
To learn more about the utility of the incline bench press for powerlifters check out: Should Powerlifters Do Incline Bench Press? (It Depends)
3. Dumbbell Bench Press
Dumbbell press variations mimic the bench press and can help build the chest and are especially great for ensuring both sides of your body are working just as hard.
We all have a dominant side and beginners especially can sometimes really favor one arm over another; therefore, adding dumbbell pressing can be a great way to provide equal stimulus to both sides.
You can modify the dumbbell presses in similar ways to barbell pressing with slowing down the tempo, pausing at the chest or moving the bench into an incline, flat or decline position.
4. Dumbbell Chest Flys
While dumbbell chest flys are less specific to bench pressing, they are a great accessory movement for building and targeting the pecs.
The use of dumbbells allows you to use each arm individually and helps build strength equally on your left and right side and additionally it is a movement where most people feel the isolation of their pecs, more so than in pressing movements.
If dumbbell chest flys aren’t your cup of tea you can also swap it out with a cable chest fly or a pec deck machine to accomplish the same thing. The cable or machine variations are good for maintaining the same amount of resistance on the eccentric and concentric and can be a great muscle building tool.
Can’t do a dumbbell fly? Check out my article on the best dumbbell fly alternatives.
5. Deficit Push Ups
While push-ups in general are a great chest exercise, especially for anyone with limited equipment, deficit push-ups in particular are a great choice for improving bench press progress.
With a deficit push up, your hands are elevated by plates, a platform or handles and you lower your body to the floor the same way you would with a typical push up. This method allows you to get extra range of motion and stretch the chest a few extra degrees.
You can think of the movement as a bench press flipped around, where, instead of pushing a bar, you are pushing the ground away from you.
Shoulder Exercises to Improve Bench Press Strength
The shoulders are sometimes forgotten when we think of bench pressing, but that’s because they are inherently involved in most upper body exercises for the chest and back.
However, it’s important to maintain the health of our shoulders to make sure we can maintain their position in the bench and load them over and over again with heavy weight.
Shoulder movements included pressing, raising and pulling apart.
6. Overhead/Strict Press
The overhead press, sometimes referred to as a strict press or military press, is a barbell movement that will help you build strength in the shoulders. This is especially a good movement to choose if you fail your bench in the mid-range or touch your bar lower on your chest.
The overhead press starts with the barbell sitting on the top of your chest, with your head pushed back and out of the way. The bar is then raised above your head, as your head then pops through so that at the top of the press the bar is floating directly above the crown of your head.
The overhead press can be used to focus on either strength or hypertrophy as you can increase the load more than you would be able to with just a dumbbell shoulder press.
To read more about the overhead press, check out: Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?
7. Band Pull Aparts/Reverse Flys
While the front of the shoulders get attention through many movements, the back of the shoulders often are left neglected. The rear deltoids, although not a huge mover in the bench press are critical in maintaining good shoulder health and mobility.
A strong bench press can only be strong if you aren’t in pain or discomfort, therefore band pull apart or other reverse fly-like movements are a must for a healthy, strong bench press.
Reverse flys can be done with light dumbbells, but just hinging at the hips and raising your arms up like wings. Band or cable pull aparts are done from a straight standing position and involve, quite literally, pulling apart a band or pulling back a cable.
8. Front and Lateral Raises
Front and lateral raises are conventional shoulder movements you’ll find many gym-goers doing and they really are a great tool for building muscle in the shoulders. Having more muscle mass on the delts will in turn help you further your strength and open up more potential with the bench press.
There are a variety of ways to do lateral raises, with straight elbows, bent elbows, slight lean forward, seated, standing or even with a cable and they primarily focus on the lateral or top of your shoulder.
Front raises are typically done with dumbbells and in a straight standing position; however, you can angle your arms to either be directly in front or slightly away from you. You can also adjust your grip to be neutral, pronated or supinated. For the purposes of powerlifting and just building shoulder size I would recommend going with a neutral grip.
When compared to lateral raises, the front raise will get you more activation with the front of the shoulder. Both exercises are important to include for long term shoulder health and stability.
Tricep Exercises to Improve Bench Press Strength
Triceps are an incredibly important muscle group in the bench and their moment to shine comes during lockout. If you have trouble with finishing your bench press even when you can get it off your chest, that’s a sign your triceps need attention!
Tricep movements primarily involve elbow extension in the form of pushdowns, push ups and presses. For powerlifters the types of movements can be broken down more simply into tricep isolation movements and compound variations that mimic the bench lockout.
For a deeper dive on tricep exercises to improve your bench, check out:
9. Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is a compound movement that is nearly identical to the bench press except that your hands should be placed about 1-2 fist lengths inside of your regular grip.
In this variation your triceps will be more activated throughout the movement and you will be able to still keep the specificity of benching by incorporating this into your program.
To learn more about close grip bench, check out: 8 Close Grip Bench Press Benefits (Plus, 1 Drawback)
10. Tate Press
The Tate press is a lesser-known exercise but it activates the triceps and mimics the lockout of a bench press a little bit more than something like a dumbbell kickback would.
This exercise can be done flat or on an incline and it involves holding dumbbells with locked out arms and then lowering the weights down and in toward the centre of your chest and then extending back out.
11. 2-Board Bench Press
The board bench press is an exercise where a board is held on your chest and you work in the top range of motion rather than lowering the bar all the way down to your chest.
This is extremely specific to the part of the lift you’re likely trying to improve and so it is a great exercise to help you add pounds to your bench press and create a solid lockout. Those who train alone you can purchase Bench Blokz that attach directly on the barbell.
12. Tricep Pushdown
The tricep pushdown, using a straight bar cable attachment, is one of the best isolation exercises for the triceps and will serve as a great muscle building tool.
While the tricep pushdown doesn’t necessarily provide specificity, it does provide activation of the muscles and will contribute to building mass in the arms. Over time this will contribute to your performance on the bench and your ability to continue building strength.
Make sure to keep your elbows as still as possible and focus on the triceps doing all the work of pushing the bar downward.
Need an alternative to the tricep pushdown? Check out my article:
Check out my review of the 12 Best Dip Belts On The Market.
Dips are an excellent exercise and are unique in the way they activate both the triceps and the pecs, making it a great accessory for bench press enthusiasts. This movement can be difficult for those with sensitive shoulders so it may not be the best exercise for everyone.
To get more triceps involved you will want to keep a more vertical posture whereas if you wish to get more chest involved you’ll want to lean forward a bit. You can also make them more intense by using a weight belt and aiming for lower rep ranges under 10.
Looking for other chest exercises that you can do standing up? Check out my article on the 12 Best Standing Chest Exercises.
If you can’t do dips, then check out my article on:
Back Exercises to Improve Bench Press Strength
It may seem strange to include back exercises for improving the bench press; however, the upper back and lats are involved particularly when it comes to lowering the bar in a safe and efficient manner.
While there are a plethora of back exercises, there are some that will help not only work the back but also cue the retraction of your shoulder blades. You may want to prioritize these exercises if you find your arch tends to collapse or you find it difficult to keep your shoulders retracted while pressing.
You can read more in my article on How Do Powerlifters Train Back?
14. Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown is a seated cable exercise that focuses on the lats and provides a great opportunity to not only activate the muscle but truly feel what shoulder retraction feels like.
It can be used as both a warm-up tool before you bench as well as an accessory movement for building lat size and strength which will then help you maintain a stronger arch and hold your shoulders in place when benching.
15. Barbell Row
The barbell row is a good exercise to include as an accessory because you can load it relatively heavy and it requires the use of your upper back.
In addition, the squeezing of your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement is similar to the way you should be squeezing your shoulder together while setting up for a bench press.
Therefore, the barbell will be a good choice for building some muscular awareness in the upper back and help you maintain that squeeze even when bench press reps become difficult.
16. Inverted Row
The inverted row is a back exercise that actually has a similar movement pattern to the bench press, except it’s your body that’s moving instead of the barbell.
This feature makes it a great back exercise that is a bit more specific than other options. It can also be used as a warm-up/activation exercise to cue your lats and shoulder position as well as an accessory to build muscle and strength.
To do the movement you will need to set up a barbell low on a rack, sit on the ground with your feet out in front of you. Then grab the barbell and row/pull yourself up to the bar. If keeping your knees straight is too challenging you can keep them bent as well.
Pull ups are a bodyweight exercise that allow you to build your lats and ultimately build control during the eccentric phase of the bench press.
Pull ups can be a difficult exercise for many but you can do them assisted on a machine or with a band until you are able to progress. Alternatively you can also do a jump to slow eccentric pull up when you just focus on the lowering part of the exercise.
Frequently Asked Questions
When discussing whether certain exercises improve the bench press, these are the most frequently asked questions that I get:
Do Push-ups Help Bench Press?
Yes, push-ups and push-up variations will help bench press strength because similar muscles like the pecs, triceps and delts are involved in pushing your body up similar to pushing the barbell off your chest. This is also an especially great accessory tool if you have limited equipment available to you.
Does Floor Press Help Bench Press?
Yes, the floor press helps the bench press because it is just a slight variation of the actual lift which focuses primarily on the triceps and lockout strength. Therefore, the floor press is a great lift for those who need to provide more stress on the triceps in a more bench press-specific manner.
Does Deadlift Help Bench Press?
Deadlifts may help your bench press through the strengthening of upper back muscles like the lats. The carry-over is likely not going to be as great as it would be with other upper body movements; however, deadlifts place your lats under very heavy loads, allowing for greater stability in the bench.
Does Dumbbell Press Help Bench Press?
Dumbbell press will help your bench press strength because the movement itself is very similar to the bench press and has the added difficulty of maintaining stability with each arm. It can be used for developing the chest as well as evening out strength between your left and right side.
Do Dips Help Bench Press?
Yes, dips can help improve your bench press because they activate the chest, triceps and delts, muscles crucial in the bench press. Dips can also be adjusted to focus more on the chest by leaning forward or staying upright and focusing on the triceps depending on your needs.
For a head-to-head exercise comparison, check out my article on Dips vs Decline Bench Press.
Do Chest Flys Help Bench Press?
Chest flys can help the bench press because of its ability to isolate the pec muscles. It is a great exercise best used to build the muscle tissue in your chest. Flys can be performed with dumbbells or cables as an accessory movement and should be used if you lack strength off the chest in the bench press.
The bench press is a staple exercise for so many, especially powerlifters, and building strength can be a challenge especially if you’ve hit a plateau or aren’t sure about
However, understanding the basic muscle groups that are involved in the lift can help you address any specific concerns or just make sure you are building yourself a well rounded muscular base that has the potential to push a lot of weight.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.