Much like leaving the toilet seat up or never getting tired of watching Jason Bourne movies, it’s pretty much in every guy’s DNA to barbell bench press. In fact, take a guy to the gym, and that station is pretty much the first place he’ll gravitate toward.
Fact is, bench press is a great way to help build upper-body strength. Plus, there’s something about piling on those plates to help you gauge how much progress you’ve made since you’ve started.
However, if you ask most guys why they bench press, they’ll often say they do it to help with better chest development.
That’s true—to a point. The barbell bench press does target your chest, which can help you build that musculature you’re looking for. It’s actually much more of a full-body movement than many people think, incorporating muscles like the triceps, shoulders, abs and even the legs, when you factor in leg drive.
In fact, there are so many other moving parts with regards to technique and joints and muscle groups involved that, for some people, the bench press may not be all that optimal for targeting the chest for impressive muscle development.
At least if you’re doing it as a standalone exercise.
Without getting too deep into an anatomy lesson, one of the major functions of the pectoral muscles—the muscles on top of your chest—is to adduct, or bring together, your arms to the midline of your body.
This is not accomplished to a great extent with a barbell bench press. That’s because your hands are in a fixed position. You’ll still get somepec activation, but as you press the weight up and down, your hands stay in place. That allows very little adduction of your arms toward your body, which omits a major function of the muscle. As a result, you might not be smoking your pecs as much as you think.
If you really want to develop your pecs, you need to add in an exercise that really lets your pecs do their job.
The solution? Superset your bench press with a light chest flyes. This move will targets the pectoral muscles in a way the bench press can’t, and it’s a great way to feel the muscle working. You’re able to really get a stretch at the bottom portion of the movement and squeeze the pecs hard at the top. (Here's how to try a banded chest fly.)
Here’s an approach I like:
- Perform a set of barbell bench press for a set of 6 to 8 reps. Think of this as the best way to “overload” the muscle with heavy weight.
- After the last rep, rack the barbell and immediately grab a set of light dumbbells (20-35 lbs) and perform a set of 12 to 15 repetitions of chest flyes. Keep the tempo slow and controlled (3 seconds down, 3 seconds up, with a 1-2 second squeeze) on each rep, to keep tension in the muscle throughout duration of the set.
- Rest 90 to 120 seconds, and repeat for a total of 3 to 4 sets.
Your pecs will be pretty fried after that. But want to kick it up another notch? Then tack on this finisher to your workout:
- Perform one set of resisted push-ups, using either bands, chains, or weight vest, for as many reps as possible (AMRAP).
- Immediately remove the load, and perform another set of AMRAP pushups.
- Rest for 1 to 2 minutes, then repeat for one more round.
The result? Follow this plan, and pretty soon those pecs will be able to cut diamonds. (Make sure you're eating to build muscle, too: Try The Metashred Diet from Men's Health.)
Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., owner of CORE in Boston has worked with thousands of clients ranging from professional athletes to weekend warriors in his 15+ years in the industry. He likes Star Wars and gluten.