Routines for a Bigger Bench
If you are ready to increase your max bench press at a steady rate, then the Critical Bench Press training program is for you.
While there are many routines available for boosting your bench, our routine is the most flexible and dependable and most importantly can be used year-round for steady increases in strength and size.
Table of Contents
1. Number of Workouts Per Week
2. Exercise Selection
3. Main Exercise
4. Secondary Exercise
5. Everything Else
6. Balancing Your Workouts
7. Sample Bench Press Training Program
8. Progression, Peaking, and Maxing
Frequency of Workouts
Before we discuss the specifics of exercise selection, we first need to discuss how many times a week you want to work out. There is no wrong or right answer for the amount of times you exercise per week, so you can pick from the splits below based on your personal time constraints:
• 3x Per Week – If you are going to work out 3x per week, you should perform 2 upper body workouts and 1 lower body workout. This is ideal for the recreational lifter who wants to build muscle mass and strength without committing major time to the gym. It is also good for in-season athletes who are doing a lot of jumping and sprinting and can only handle 1 leg work-out per week.
• 4x Per Week – If you are going to workout 4 times per week, there are two ways you can split this up: 2 Chest/Shoulder/Back workouts, 1 Arms workout, and 1 Lower Body workout. or 2 Upper Body workouts and 2 Lower Body workouts. If you are an off-season athlete or interested in building up your strength in the squat and deadlift as well, you will want to perform two lower body workouts per week. If you just want to add muscle mass to remain proportional with your upper body, 1 lower body workout is fine.
• 5x Per Week – If you are going to work out 5 times per week, you can perform 2 Chest/Shoulder/Back workouts, 1 Arms workout, and 2 Lower Body workouts per week. This is ideal for off-season athletes or powerlifters who want to not only significantly improve their bench press but also their squat and deadlift.
Setting Up Your Workouts – Exercise Selection, Sets, and Reps
The most important aspect of any exercise program is exercises you choose to do and how many sets and reps you do for each exercise. The actual weight you are using is far less important than the sets and reps.
As a result, I am not actually going to recommend weight percentages. Instead, we will go by perceived effort. For some exercises you will want to choose the heaviest weight you can and still hit the target number of reps. For others, you will want to choose a lighter weight and just “get your reps in” without struggling too hard. More details on this will be provided below.
If you are not in a peaking phase, I do not recommend going to failure (that is you need someone to pull the bar off you) on any exercise.
No matter how many times per week you workout, the way you set up your workout will generally look the same. Here is how your workout should be laid out:
• Main Exercise – Your main exercise of the day involves working up to some sort of “top set”. For benching, you might slowly warm-up to a weight you know is challenging for 10 reps and see how many times you can do it without failing.
• Secondary Exercise – Your secondary exercise of the day will be a similar movement to your main exercise (if not the same exercise), using a weight that you can comfortably do for 4-6 sets of 6-15 reps. You want to be able to get all the sets you choose, but you should be tired by the last rep.
• Everything Else – In the everything else section, I generally recommend doing 3-4 sets of 8-20 reps. None of these exercises should be exhausting or difficult – you do not need them to be in order to make steady gains. Most of your effort for the day should have been expended during the main and secondary exercise. This includes all back exercises and isolation exercises for both upper and lower body.
Exercise Selection – The Main Exercise
The main exercise is the most difficult and intense exercise of the day. This is done by working up to a single, heavy set. You warm-up thoroughly and slowly add weight to the bar as you go until you get to the one, final set. There is just 1 real set done here.
Note: The Flat Barbell Bench Press should be occupy the “main exercise” slot on 1 upper body workout per week.
There are two ways you can go about this: you can either pick a heavy weight and try to do as many reps of this as you can, or you can pick a rep-range to shoot for and keep adding 10-20 pounds at a time until you think you would not be able to go any higher.
In other words, if you were choosing the first style, you might go for as many reps as possible with 225 pounds. After doing warm-up sets with 45, 95, 135, 175, and 205 pounds, you would then put on 225 pounds and do as many reps as you could. When choosing weights, you should have an estimate of how many you are going to get, and you want this to be in the 5-15 range. Any less means you should choose less weight, any more means you need more weight on the bar.
The other way you can go about this is by picking a rep range – anywhere from 5-10 reps, and keep performing a set of that number of reps and adding 10-20 pounds a set, going up until you cannot perform another set.
It is important that you do not fail (i.e. need someone to grab the bar off you) during the main exercise. This is too exhausting and negatively impacts the secondary exercise. You may think you are helping yourself by going all out here, but the truth is you are just tiring yourself out so you cannot put forth a good effort on the secondary exercise.
Progression on the Main Exercise
For progression, keep the same main exercise each week, but change your target slightly, either up or down, from week to week. Do not repeat weight or set ranges more than once a month.
Let’s say we choose the flat barbell bench press for the main exercise. On the first week, you might try to do as many reps as you can with 185 pounds. On the second week, you might try to do the most weight you can for 5 reps. On the third week, you might try to do max reps with 205 pounds. On the fourth week, you might go for max weight on a set for 10 reps. Each month you could then repeat these tasks, increasing the weight by 5 pounds or the target reps by 1.
Choosing Your Main Exercises
Your main exercise should always be a big movement (with the possible exception being arm day). For upper body, it should be flat barbell bench press, overhead barbell bench press, or incline bench press. For lower body day, it should be squats, deadlift, or a derivative (i.e. Trap Bar Deadlift).
While I like to use dumbbells, machines, and single-leg movements, these should not occupy the main exercise if your goal is to build a bigger bench press. Save these for secondary or “everything else” exercises.
Picking Your Secondary Exercises
The secondary exercise is just as important as the main exercise is in terms of the amount of progress that you make on the bench press. For both upper body and lower body, this area will be 4-6 sets of 8-15 reps. Mix up your set and rep ranges but always make sure you can complete every rep you right down. You should not fail on any exercise and if you went all out you should be able to do a few extra reps on the final set (not that you should).
This should be another pushing movement on Upper Body days. One day per week this should be the flat barbell bench press. On the other day it could be really any pushing movement you want – incline bench press (both barbell or dumbbell), overhead press (barbell or dumbbell) or dips (use the dip machine, do not do these on a bench).
On lower body days, I recommend picking a derivative of the “opposite” exercise of what you choose for the first movement. We will consider squats to be “quad dominant” and deadlifts to be “hip dominant”. If you choose a squatting movement for your primary exercise, you will want to choose a deadlift or a deadlift variation (i.e. Romanian Deadlift or Stiff-Legged deadlift) for your secondary exercise. If you chose to deadlift, use some sort of squat for your secondary movement, like the front squat. The only exception here is the trap bar deadlift – this movement is both – choose whatever you think is your weak point for the secondary movement in this case.
Picking Your “Everything Else” Exercises
After your first two movements, your everything else section contains just about everything else you need to train. This includes all back exercises (rows, pulldowns), isolation exercises (arms, rear delts, lateral delts, lower back, abs, and any lower body group).
I recommend doing 3-4 sets of 8-20 reps in this section. This section is really flexible depending on comfort levels, individual weaknesses, and goals. I am assuming you want to increase your bench press so that is what I will focus on. I do however have some guidelines.
A Note On Balance
You should to try to balance the number of pushing and pulling exercises while using the same planes of movement as well. In other words, if you do two bench-press like movements, you should choose two types of rows (barbell row, seated row, bent over dumbbell row, it does not matter) to use in the “everything else” category.
Pull-downs, chin-ups, or pull-ups would not qualify in this instance, since bench pressing and rows are done in front of you, whereas pull-ups are done overhead. Instead, pull-ups and the like pair with the overhead press or military press. If you choose any of these exercises, you should be sure to add some pull-ups or pull-downs.
Rowing machines like the two above are ideal as they let you use a wide, overhand grip (palms facing down) and the bar is rowed towards your chest. These are the true opposites of the bench press and hit the upper back in a row that a low row (like a seated row with the narrow V bar) cannot.
Upper Body Workouts – No Arms – If you are not having a separate arms workout, your “everything else” section will be a bit long. You will first need to match back sets with the amount of pushing exercises you did. For example if you did a flat barbell bench press as your primary exercise and a dumbbell overhead press for your second exercise, you will want to do 3-4 sets of seated row and 3-4 sets of pulldowns to stay balanced. This will help reduce injury risk.
After that, on the first upper body workout day you will want to do some sort of triceps movement, such as pushdowns, and on the other upper body workout day you will want to do some sort of biceps movement. Finally, on one day you will likely want to throw in something for rear delts and on the other day something for lateral delts. You do not need any isolation work on the anterior delts with all the pressing we are doing with this workout.
Upper Body Workouts – Arms – If you are doing an arms workout, you can pick 3 biceps and triceps exercises to do 3-4 sets of for 6-20 reps. You do not want to do the typical primary exercise on arms day. If you really want to hammer your bench press you can set up a “secondary” exercise of close-grip bench press. Just make sure you take off from training the next day as you do not want any arm work to negatively impact your bench sessions.
If you choose to do a dedicated arms workout, you can drop your arms workouts from your Chest, Shoulders, and Back workouts. You can then add in an extra exercise of rear delts or
Lower Body Workouts – Your everything else exercises should be two exercises with low spinal load. This means no squats or deadlifts and the weight chosen should be relatively light. One exercise should be a single leg movement, such as a reverse lunge, front lunge, or a split squat, and one exercise should be a machine focusing on your weak point, like a hamstring curl, hip extension, or leg extension, depending on the individual.
Sample 4x a Week Bench Press Training Program
You now have the exact template you need to create your own Critical Bench workout program. Below, I am going to provide a sample for the 4 day a week program with an arms workout. While you should gain strength and size across the whole body, this program is specifically oriented towards increasing your bench press.
Using an arms workout may not be ideal for athletes who need to significantly improve their strength and squat. These athletes can add in an extra leg workout or alternatively replace their arms workout with an extra leg workout.
Upper Body Workout 1 – Monday
Primary Exercise: Flat Barbell Bench Press – Work Up to 1 Set of Max Reps with 275 Pounds
Secondary Exercise: Incline Barbell Bench Press – 4 sets of 12 reps with 185 Pounds
Everything Else 1: T-Bar Seated Row – 4 sets of 10 reps with moderate weight
Everything Else 2: Low Angle Pulldown – 4 sets of 12 reps with moderate weight
Everything Else 3: Rear Delt Flies – 3 sets of 15 reps with light weight
Everything Else 4: Lateral Raises – 3 sets of 15 with light weight
Lower Body Workout 1 – Tuesday
Primary Exercise: Trap Bar Deadlift – Work up to 405 pounds for a set of max reps.
Secondary Exercise: Romanian Deadlift – 4 sets of 8 reps with a moderate weight
Everything Else 1: Bulgarian Squat – 4 sets of 8 with moderate weight
Everything Else 2: Single Leg Hip Extension Machine – 4 sets of 10, light weight, 1 second pause at top
Everything Else 3: Planks – 4 sets of 30 second holds
Everything Else 4: Optional sets Calves or Lower Back work – Cosmetic but unlikely to improve bench press.
Upper Body Workout 2 – Thursday
Primary Exercise: Standing Barbell Military Press – Work up to a max weight for 7 reps
Secondary Exercise: Flat Barbell Bench Press – 5 sets of 8 with 225 pounds
Everything Else 1: Bent Over Dumbbell Row – 4 sets of 8 reps with moderate weight
Everything Else 2: Pull-ups – 4 sets of max reps-2 with bodyweight – that is stop when you think you can only do 2 more.
Everything Else 3: Rear Delt Machine – 4 sets of 10 reps with moderate weight
Arms Workout 1 – Saturday
Primary Exercise: No primary exercise for arms day – warm-up with a few very light sets of rope triceps pushdown
Secondary Exercise: Close Grip Bench Press – 4 sets of 8 reps – moderate to heavy weight
Everything Else 1: Rope Triceps Pushdown – 4 sets of 15 reps – moderate weight, brief pause at bottom
Everything Else 2: Overhead 1-Arm Dumbbell Triceps Extension – 4 sets of 8 reps – feel stretch at bottom, pausing briefly
Everything Else 3: Reverse EZ-Bar Biceps Curl – 4 sets of 10 reps – moderate weight
Everything Else 4: Preacher Seat Dumbbell Curl – 3 sets of 15 reps, 1 arm at a time
Everything Else 5: Standing EZ-Bar Curl – 4 sets of 10 reps, controlled motion
Progression, Peaking, and Maxing
The bench press training program outlined above is something you can use year-round. Keep the same exercises for at least a few months at a time before changing them for best results. You can change your “everything else” exercises far more frequently than your primary or secondary exercises if you get bored easily.
However, there may come a time when you really want to increase your max bench press fast or for a particular date. This could be the start of an athlete’s competitive athletic season, a powerlifting competition, or just a push towards a bench press milestone like 185, 225, 275, 315, 365, or even 405+.
In these situations, starting a peaking program like the Critical Bench Program can lead to significant improvements to your bench press in a short amount of time. The downside is they work best when only followed once in awhile. You can use the Critical Bench Program linked below before your competition or once per year to get a large increase in your bench press strength.