Adding weight is fine up to a point, but – as any competitive powerlifter’s Instagram shows – it’s also a guaranteed route to pec tears, blown rotator cuffs and permanently ruined shoulders. For a better chest without the risk, look to American football players, who train to push a (relatively) low weight for high reps, which means they build functional muscle while staying battle-ready all year round.
The standard bench press weight at the NFL combine – where players go for max reps in one set – is 225lb/102kg, but most players are far heavier than that, so aim to bench your own bodyweight for reps. Tweak your technique, fine-tune your plan and get ready to build an upper body that’s pitch perfect.
Step 1: Set up properly
Taking your feet off the floor? Madness. “Tuck your feet a little behind your knees so you can push off the floor,” advises Chicago Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long. “Grip the bar a little outside shoulder width and tuck your elbows in.” This won’t just minimise your injury risk, it’ll mean you operate at maximum efficiency.
Step 2: Get a better back
“Bench pressing properly involves creating torque at the shoulders,” says combine coach Joe DeFranco. “So isometric strength in your shoulders will build a perfect launch pad.” You don’t even need any kit for DeFranco’s YWT drill – lie facedown, first with your arms in a Y, then in a W and finally in a T shape, thumbs pointing to the ceiling throughout. Hold each position for 10 seconds.
Step 3: Work your weaknesses
What’s failing first? “If it’s your triceps, add three sets of max dips to the end of your sessions,” suggests powerlifting guru Dave Tate. “If it’s your chest, do close-grip incline bench presses. Change your assistance exercises frequently – you don’t know what’s going to work.”
Step 4: Count down, not up
“Pick a number you’re trying to hit and work backwards from that,” says Tate. “If you think you’ve got 24 in you, go from there. Or count in sets of 10 down to one, then start again. It works even better if someone else counts for you.” Just remember, when your counting partner touches the bar, the set’s done.
Step 5: Just add volume
How do you add reps? By doing more reps. “Set a timer for 10 minutes and aim for a set number of reps every 30 seconds – say, five,” says strength coach Rob MacDonald. It’s a great way to get a lot of volume done in a short space of time.
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From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.