10 Bench Press Variations Explained
Once exercise, a multitude of variations.
The bench press is an exercise that can be altered ever so slightly based upon your goals.
Let’s delve into a number of bench press variations to ensure you’re implementing the correct bench press variations to align with your lifting goals.
Looking to build overall strength?
Want to increase hypertrophy and build a big chest?
Want to place emphasis on you triceps?
Want to build strength in the top portion of your bench press repetitions?
No problems, I’ve got a variation for you.
The Incline Barbell Bench Press
If aesthetics are your goal you cannot neglect the incline barbell bench press.
Opting to perform the barbell bench press with an incline bench places greater emphasis on the upper chest. A full, well developed upper chest is a major key to an aesthetic physique.
Remember, Form Comes First
Set up an incline bench in front of a weight rack, making sure you adjust the incline to a comfortable position. The back of the bench should be facing the weight stack.
Sit on the bench placing your back firmly against the backrest.
Using an overhand grip, grasp the bar with your hands spaced about twice your shoulder width apart.
Lift the bar from the rack by pushing up with your chest muscles and hold it straight over your chest with your arms fully extended. This is the start position.
As you inhale, lower the barbell slowly until it touches your upper chest.
Hold for a count of one while squeezing your chest muscles.
Return to the start position as you exhale, pushing the bar using your chest muscles. Hold for a count of one.
The Decline Barbell Bench Press
The decline barbell bench press places emphasis on your lower chest and shoulders.
I personally do not perform the decline barbell bench press as excessive lower chest developments can make your chest appear ‘droopy’ not to mention there are far more effective exercises for targeting your anterior (front) deltoids.
To perform the decline barbell bench press correctly:
Lay on a decline bench.
Grip the barbell with thumbs wrapped around the bar at a slightly wider than shoulder width grip.
Assume a slight arch with your back (you should be able to just fit a fist between your lower back and the bench), plant your heels firmly on the ground and squeeze your shoulder blades down and back.
Unrack the barbell and slowly lower it down in a controlled manner to the middle of your chest, stopping just shy of the barbell touching your chest.
Drive through your chest to power the barbell back up to the starting position, with arms fully extended.
The Close Grip Bench Press
The close grip bench press is a fantastic mass builder for the triceps.
If you’re struggling to build both size and strength in your triceps take inventory of the exercises you’re currently performing for them… if you spend your workout hitting dumbell triceps kickbacks and other light isolation/extension based triceps exercises this comes as no surprise.
In order to grow your triceps you must place them under load and the close grip bench press is one of the top exercises to do this.
Perform the close grip bench press with an inside shoulder width grip on the barbell while utilizing a flat bench.
Ensure your elbows are tucked into your sides. Flared elbows will not only place you at a much greater risk of injury, you’ll also be recruiting far more shoulder/chest activation instead of your targeted muscle group, the triceps.
The Floor Press
If further increasing strength on your bench press is your goal but you find yourself struggling to complete the top portion of your repetitions then this is the variation for you.
Begin laying on the floor with your barbell and press until your triceps touch the ground.
You’ll find you have no pressure on your lower back as well as no way to cheat on these repetitions as your legs are flat on the floor, eliminating leg drive.
From my experience guys with longer arms benefit the most from the floor press.
The Reverse Grip (Underhand) Barbell Bench Press
It’s not overly often you’ll come across someone performing the reverse grip barbell bench press in the gym which is a shame because it’s great variation for placing emphasis on the upper chest due to rotated wrists and arms.
You’ll find you cannot lift as much weight on the reverse grip barbell bench press as your regular barbell bench press, keep this in mind to avoid placing excessive stress on your wrists.
Keep your arms just inside shoulder-width with your elbows tucked to your sides, lower the barbell until it touches your chest (do not bounce it off your chest).
I recommend using the reverse grip barbell bench press as more of a hypertropy based exercise (as mentioned, you’ll want to drop the weight on this one so I recommend targetting 10+ repetitions per set).
Chains Barbell Bench Press
Looking to build explosive pressing power? enter the barbell bench press with chains attached.
Attach your pair of chains to your barbell (ensuring you have slightly less weight than normal loaded on the bar) and tighten the collars.
You’ll find that the closer to the top of each repetition you get the harder it becomes as more weight from your chains begins to lift off the ground.
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
Instead of pressing with two dumbbells the unilateral flat dumbbell bench press will have you holding and pressing one dumbbell at a time.
This is a fantastic core exercise and is often used for overcoming a lagging side/correcting dominance.
You’ll find when pressing one dumbbell at a time your core will need to be engaged the whole time to maintain your position on the bench, with the weight of the dumbbell you’d normally press being reduced significantly.
Feet Elevated Barbell Bench Press
Performing the barbell bench press with your feet elevated on the bench itself takes pressure off your lower back and instead increases tension on your chest, shoulders and abdominals.
If hypertrophy and building size are your goals I recommend occasionally mixing this barbell bench press variation into your routine.
Weight wise you’ll want to drop it down a bit from your regular feet planted barbell bench press as the stabilization required (not to mention increased tension on the chest) will require you to drop the weight to maintain your usual rep range.
The Arched Back Flat Barbell Bench Press
Go to a powerlifting meet and you’ll never see a competitor benching with their back flat on the bench, there are 3 main reasons why this is the case.
You’ll Lift More
If your goal is to increase the numbers you’re putting up on your bench you’ll find that by switching from a traditional ‘bodybuilder’ style bench press to a ‘powerlifter’ style bench press with an arched back and retracted scapula you’ll instantly be able to press more. We’re not talking to the extreme of back arching here – simply enough to fit a fist in the gap between the bench and your lower back.
You’re Actually REDUCING Your Risk of Injury
The #1 misconception I see and hear when it comes to the bench press arch back is that by using this form you’re begging for an injury.
You’ll find it’s quite the opposite, and I speak from experience.
The majority of guys that’ve been lifting for a number of years have experienced some niggling shoulder issues from bench pressing with flared elbows or similiar.
By slightly arching your back you’re able to contract your scapula (squeeze your shoulder blades together on the bench) which reduces the stress on your shoulder joints which are without a doubt the most vulnerable joint in your body.
You’re Far More Stable
Utilizing a slight arch in your back while your feet are firmly planted on the ground and your scapula are contracted on the bench provides far more stability than the traditional flat back style bench press.
Not only does this physically help you add those extra pounds to the bar and squeeze out those few more reps, it also gives a big mental boost.
Even with a spotter, getting beyond certain numbers on the flat bench – be it 225lbs, 315lbs or whatever your number may be is more of a mental plateau than anything.
The Pause Rep Flat Barbell Bench Press
Don’t have chains but want to work on your explosive pressing power? The pause rep is the variation for you.
Lower the barbell down to your chest as if you were performing a regular barbell bench press. but instead of driving the barbell straight back up pause for a count of 3.
Now explosively press the barbell back up to the starting position with your arms fully extended.
I recommend performing the pause rep flat barbell bench press in the 4 – 8 rep range for explosive power.