There are a variety of exercises, rep ranges, and variations you can do to train your chest, and you’ll see the full range of them if you spend enough time in the gym. But if you’re interested in powerlifting, or just maxing out your bench press, what’s the best way to train your chest?
Powerlifters should train their chest with a combination of compound and isolation movements with rep ranges between 1-12 and sets of 3-6. While many chest exercises exist, powerlifters should be focused on those that transfer strength and skill the most to the barbell bench press.
But how do you look at a bench press and decide which exercises will actually help you improve your bench? That’s exactly what this article is all about.
The Goal Of Training Chest For Powerlifting
Powerlifting is all about recruiting every possible muscle to move the barbell up and down.
And though we want to use all our muscles available for a max effort compound lift like the bench press, it’s necessary to understand which muscles are being used, and then train those muscles individually to improve our overall lift, or in this case, the bench press.
Check out my complete guide to understanding what muscles are used in the bench press.
Put simply: if you want to upgrade your car, upgrade the parts one by one, and you’ll have an upgraded car. The same can be done for powerlifters and their muscles.
When training the chest for powerlifting, the goal is to exercise it in such a way that it transfers over to your bench, not just works your pecs randomly or for aesthetic reasons.
For example, a great bodybuilding exercise for pecs are dumbbell flys. In this exercise, you lie on your back with dumbbells in your hands and open and close your arms, like you’re hugging a big tree.
While this is great for isolating the pecs, and can absolutely help grow them, this is not a motion that is required in the bench press. At no point in a bench press do your pecs need to move weight from the outside of your body to the inside of your body.
Check out my article that compares the powerlifting vs bodybuilding bench press. There are 13 differences discussed from technique to programming.
On the other hand, placing your hands in a ultra-wide grip on the barbell and performing a bench press with this grip will activate your pecs more than your normal, shoulder-width grip.
This exercise is very similar to the competition bench press, and doing it over time with progression will absolutely strengthen your pecs, and transfer over to your competition bench press.
Don’t get me wrong, I do dumbbell flys often as a powerlifter, but usually during a hypertrophy or GPP block, and not so much in a strength block or a peaking block before maxing out my bench press.
I simply understand the purpose of them (growing the pec muscle over time) and use them accordingly with my goals.
Whatever your chest exercise preference is, pay attention to how it affects your bench press and prioritize the ones that transfer the most to your competition bench press form.
5 Benefits of Training Chest For Powerlifting
Here are the top five benefits to training your chest for powerlifting:
- Creates bottom-end strength in the bench press
- Helps control the barbell eccentrically
- Helps strengthen the ‘pause’ in the bench press
- Improve the Flat-Back Bench Press
- Strengthen the Wide-Grip Bench Press
1. Creates bottom-end strength in the bench press
Your pecs are utilized at the bottom of the rep when the bar is near or touching your chest, so training your pecs will allow you to increase strength off your chest.
By effectively training your chest with compound and isolated muscle variations, you’re strengthening the largest muscle group that’s used in the bench press, and the muscles that are most important at the bottom.
Nobody likes lowering a barbell to their chest and getting stuck because they aren’t strong enough to even start it back toward the rack. Training your chest is the perfect way to avoid your bench press failing at the bottom.
If your bench is weak off the chest, check out this full article I wrote to help.
2. Helps control the barbell eccentrically
Here’s another fun fact I bet you didn’t know – your pecs are activated 2x as much on the eccentric or negative portion (the downward motion) of the bench press than they are on the way back up while you are pressing.
If you have a weak chest, it’s not uncommon that you won’t have great control over the bar as you lower it to your chest, which can result in you dropping it too fast, collapsing your arched back position on the bench, or even hurting yourself when you attempt a max-effort lift.
Training your chest in addition to your normal bench press programming will help you control the bar better on the way down, setting you up for a much more successful press when you turn it back around and press it upward.
3. Helps strengthen the ‘pause’ in the bench press
If you have any plans to compete in powerlifting, you have to be able to pause the bar on your chest, not just tap it or “touch and go.”
Because the pause is required at the bottom of the rep, where the pecs are most heavily utilized in the bench press, training your chest will absolutely pass over to improve your ability to pause the barbell on your chest before pressing it back up.
For that reason alone, training your pecs is key to being a successful powerlifter at any level.
4. Improve the Flat-Back Bench Press
While most powerlifters utilize the “arched back position” when benching, training your pecs will allow you to generate more strength in a flat-back position if that’s your preferred style of benching.
Let’s talk about the arch. Yes, it’s true that the arch in your back when you bench press is a strategic move to reduce the range of motion required to touch the barbell to your chest.
But I get it, not everyone has the mobility or preference to bench with an arch in their back. You might even be the type to say an “arch is dumb” and you want to show the world you can bench with a flat back.
If this is you, strong pecs are all the more important, because you have to bring the bar a few inches lower than your peers who have an arch and can reduce that distance from the bottom to the top of the press.
There’s nothing wrong with benching on a flat back, but know what the advantages and disadvantages are of the position. One of the big disadvantages is it requires greater pec strength.
Check out my article on Can You Train Back And Chest Together?
5. Strengthen the Wide-Grip Bench Press
The maximum you can grip the barbell in a competition bench press is 81cm apart. This is considered a “wide grip”, and the wider you grip the bar, the stronger your pecs needs to be.
Lifters can grab the bar in a variety of ways. Some have a standard, shoulder-width grip. Others prefer a more narrow grip with their hands closer together, and others still prefer a very wide grip with their hands further apart on the barbell.
If you are a lifter who prefers a wide grip, then extra pec work will be key to progressing your bench.
The wide grip position activates your pecs far more than a neutral or narrow grip, so a stronger chest is required to pull it off (or should I say push it off?) successfully.
To learn more about the wide grip bench press, check out my complete guide.
Tips For Training Chest For Powerlifting
So now that you know more chest work is valuable and needed to improve your bench, you might still be scratching your head about how to approach it and add it into your program. We’ve put together a few tips to make it easier for you.
Stop and think about the chest exercise you are adding to your program for the day, week, or training block. What muscle groups are also engaged in that exercise?
As much as possible, select exercises that use the same muscle group as the bench press, or focus on isolating individual muscles used in the bench press.
As we’ve said before, there are some great pec exercises for bodybuilders that won’t do nearly as much for the powerlifter in terms of improving your max bench press.
Type of Exercise
Think again about the chest exercises you want to start incorporating into your program. Is it training your pecs for strength, or for growth?
Best chest exercises for strength:
- Barbell Bench Press
- Paused Bench Press
- Wide Grip Bench Press
- Negative Tempo Bench Press
- Isometric Bench Press
- Reverse Band Bench Press
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Paused Dumbbell Bench Press
- Negative Tempo Dumbbell Bench Press
- All of the above on an incline bench
When using the exercises above to train strength, they’ll have the most immediate results for your bench press, as they are very similar to the bench press itself, or have a similar pressing motion, and use the same muscle groups.
Best chest exercises for hypertrophy:
- Dumbbell Flyes
- Cable flyes/Cable Crossovers
- Decline Bench Press
- Decline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Dumbbell Chest Scoop/Raise
- Dips (leaning forward) or dip alternative
- Plate Pinch Press
Looking for chest exercises that you can do standing up? Check out my article on the 12 Best Standing Chest Exercises.
When using the exercises above for hypertrophy, the goal is to keep the tension on the muscle for the entire ROM of the movement. This is also the reason high reps are necessary – to increase the amount of time the muscle is under tension.
For this reason, negative tempo chest exercises can also be categorized as hypertrophy exercises.
Again, these exercises may not have an immediate transfer to your bench press, but they are absolutely building more muscle that you’ll be able to rely on and utilize in the long term.
Whatever you do, be cognizant of what type of exercise it is and how/why it will help you reach your goals.
Typically these movements are done with higher reps. Take a look at my article on the Benefits of High Rep Bench Press, specifically how it relates to powerlifting training.
I had a mentor when I was young tell me that “practice makes perfect” was bogus, but “perfect practice makes perfect” was absolute truth. The same goes for technique in our powerlifting training.
Check out our bench press technique category on our site to learn how to maximize your individual leverages and break through plateaus in strength.
The better your technique when training your chest, the better results you’ll get from it.
Most powerlifters will have a strength-based chest workout, which includes a heavy bench press, and often a second day of the week when they train their chest with a lighter/more dynamic effort, or accessory movements to support the bench press and the muscle groups needed for it.
With that said, some powerlifters train their chest upwards of 4-5 times per week. If you want to learn more about how many times per week you should bench press, then check out my complete guide where I cover some important considerations.
Sets & Reps
Be mindful of your sets and reps. Generally speaking, higher reps are better for hypertrophy, lower reps are better for strength development (assuming both are done with the appropriate weight).
- For strength work: 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps
- For hypertrophy work: 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps
If you are early in your training block, utilize the time to do more hypertrophy work with higher reps. As you get closer to competition or test day, increase the weight and decrease the reps to bring it into the strength rep ranges.
Personally, I’d say a good bench workout should include 15-40 reps of your working set (e.g. 4 sets of 10 reps for a hypertrophy workout, 5 sets of 3 reps for a strength training day, and any variation in between, like 5 sets of 5 reps).
Check out my sample chest workouts below for more.
No matter the goal of your chest work, you should not be pushing to failure. There is too high of a risk for injury if you’re consistently lifting at or near your max on a regular basis.
For strength/hypertrophy work:
You only need to push 1 set to near failure one-time per week, and keep all other sets within two reps of failure.
Some powerlifters like to use the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Effort) or RIR (Reps in Reserve) to determine how much effort was required to move the weight for that set. Others prefer to use a percentage of their most recent max.
Whatever method you use, the load should challenge you, but should not be so challenging that you work up to the point of failure, and certainly shouldn’t cause you to miss reps in your first few sets.
If you’re wondering whether you can just bench press to work your chest, check out my article on Is Bench Press Good Enough For Chest?
Sample Powerlifting Chest Workout
These workouts incorporate both the strength training focus of the top sets, as well as the accessories/hypertrophy that you could break off to a second workout that same week.
Example Powerlifting Chest Workout #1: Strength Focus
- Warm up
- Bench Press – 5 sets of 3 reps @ 85% of max
- Paused Bench Press – 5 sets of 3 reps @ 75% of max
- Wide Grip Bench Press – 3 sets of 10 reps @ 60% of max
- Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Pushups – 4 sets to failure (as many reps as possible)
We start with the standard bench press, as it is the most taxing and we want to be fresh and focused to hit those sets.
The deeper I get into my workout, the less weight I need to use and the less technical the exercises become so I can continue training my chest, but allowing for fatigue and breakdown of form without risking injury.
Example Powerlifting Chest Workout #2: Hypertrophy Focus
- Warm Up
- Bench Press – 4 sets of 10 reps
- Negative Bench Press – 5 sets of 6 reps, 5 second negative tempo
- Wide Grip Bench Press – 4 sets of 10 reps
- Incline Dumbbell Flys – 3 sets of 10
- Cable Crossovers – 3 sets of 10
Example Powerlifting Chest Workout #3: Chest Accessory
- Warm up
- Wide Grip Bench Press – 5 sets of 12, 10, 8, 8, 8 with short rest
- Dumbbell Bench Press/Dumbbell Chest Flys – Superset – 4 sets of 10 reps each
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press/Incline Dumbbell Chest Flys – 4 sets of 10 reps each
- Dips (leaning forward) 3 sets of 8-10
- Push Ups – 4 sets to failure
Other Powerlifting Workout Guides
Make sure to check out my other training guides for powerlifting:
- How Do Powerlifters Train Back?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Arms?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Shoulders?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Legs?
Your best bench press is only as good as the weakest muscle group utilized in the whole movement. As your bench progresses, you will absolutely need to train your chest outside of just the standard bench press. Otherwise, your pecs just might be the point where your bench breaks down in the near future.
However you prefer training your chest, think critically about how the exercises you select are helping your bench. Are they just activating your pecs? Or are they strengthening them in a way that will have the most transfer of strength to your bench press?
As you consistently train your chest to cultivate mass and for maximum force output, you’ll see great results when it comes time to max out your bench again.
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.