The bench press is my favourite exercise in the gym. Of course, it helps that I’m naturally strong through my chest and shoulders and as a result, my numbers go up in that lift the most quickly, and for that reason, it’s emotionally satisfying to me.
Armchair psychologist time: who doesn’t like doing things they’re good at?
So, it’s my favourite exercise, even though there are exercises that isolate each of the parts that form the whole in the movement, it’s a great upper body exercise and that uses multiple joints and is a great way to increase upper body strength.
It can be done with a barbell or a set of dumbbells, but either way, the exercise is correctly done when the bar is lowered until a point half an inch off the chest and then pushed back into the air with the arms extended fully over the chest. The bar or dumbbells are then once more lowered slowly (do not let them drop quickly because A) you could hurt yourself dropping the weight on your chest and B) you gain more strength on the downward, or eccentric, portion of the lift. And after all, if we’re not gaining strength, what’s the point?
‘But it’s harder that way,’ I will hear in the form of whining from time to time.
‘I know,’ I answer them. ‘I’m comfortable with that.’
Start with three to five sets of the exercise, and it’s a great jumping-off point to start working other upper-body muscles, such as the deltoids, the latissimus dorsi (the big, upper-back muscle), the triceps and the biceps.
Do a weight you can lift more-or-less comfortably for 8 reps and do 10 reps. Rest 45 seconds to a minute and start again. Do the set three to five times. No more than five sets for reasons we will explore some other day, especially at the beginning. In weight training, the last two or three reps of any set should be at least a bit of a challenge. If you bang out a set that was easy from beginning to end, you probably need to add weight (assuming your form is OK).
My bench press sets usually hover around 12-15 reps most of the year at about 60 per cent of my 1RM (one-rep maximum), but in March and September I start going back to a Wendler 5x5x5 routine where I do way more sets with fewer reps at a higher weight. That's more of an intermediate-level thing. Stay within the recommended rep range at the beginning. That way youur muscles will adapt slowly with less residual muscle soreness.