Bench Press Accessory Exercises for Every Client
Should every one of your clients know how to bench press? The answer is YES! The standard barbell flat bench press is an effective full-body movement beneficial to all clients from the weekend fitness warrior to the seasoned, high-level athlete. It will improve core, shoulder, chest, and triceps strength as well as build shoulder and core stability.
A flat bench press focuses on the deltoids, pectoralis major and minor (pecs), the triceps, and the latissimus dorsi (lats). To best aid your clients in improving their bench press, preventing injury, and avoiding plateaus, you will want to know and use accessory exercises that focus on these muscle groups regularly. Once a week won’t cut it, either!
Research shows that training a muscle group two times a week is ideal for building and maintaining or improving strength and hypertrophy. Whether your clients train with you every workout or on their own at times, help them change the mentality that once a week is enough for results! You, as the professional, can recommend the proper weights, modalities, and movements to help reach their fitness goals.
Know Your Client and Their Abilities and Limitations
Common limitations in the general population include rotator cuff injuries, elbow and wrist pain, frozen shoulder, and other range of motion impairments, or even simply tight pectoralis muscles. The source of these issues is often their working conditions (e.g., sitting at a desk 8-10 hours a day) and poor repetitive movement patterns like improper form when training. The injury-prone shoulder joint should always be a focus for all clients. If you have a client with a shoulder injury, focus on shoulder exercises to reduce injury on a regular basis!
Ensure you are asking about your client’s limitations and injuries before beginning a fitness program. Also, continue to check in with them throughout your training protocol to gauge if they are seeing and feeling improvement. Something as simple as stretching before and between sets may help with range of motion. With other clients, you may need to implement a protocol of light band and core work as part of their warm-up to promote blood flow and loosen the muscles you intend to target that day.
These accessory exercises are a great supplement on a chest day as well as independently.
The basic wide push-up is a staple “push” movement in any trainer’s toolbox. Done from the toes or the knees with hips low for a solid high plank, this movement will target core strength, chest, triceps, and shoulder stability and strength.
To progress, a narrow (or close grip) push-up will focus more on a concentric triceps extension. With both versions, ensure hands stay at mid-chest level and shoulders are down and away from the ears. This will ensure proper shoulder range of motion and minimize the involvement of the trapezius.
This is the functional movement most people should be doing but don’t! It focuses on back strength, latissimus dorsi activation, biceps, triceps, and core strength. There are many variations of a pull-up:
- Scapular retraction and modified range of motion
The scapular pull-up involves the client in the hanging start position of a wide grip overhand pull-up. They will limit the range of motion to lift the chest and engage their lats. They will only move a few inches before releasing back to the start position, but you are training them to activate the correct muscles. Once they master this, the next step is pulling to halfway through the range of motion (90-degree elbow bend) before returning to the hanging start position (assisted or not).
The assisted versions progress from the machine to the band, to a person, then to the unassisted variation when the client has mastered their form and can complete the movement with proper activation and stability. Bigger, stronger lats will lead to a bigger bench press!
Yet another movement with many variations! Training the triceps as an isolated movement will help them get stronger faster as they are a major synergist to the bench press. The triceps are a smaller muscle group, so your client may not need to use heavy weights. This is a great muscle group to focus on time under tension versus higher resistance to promote muscle growth and minimize injury. Slower, more controlled movements will yield better results!
Depending on your client’s shoulder limitations and range of motion, you can hit triceps with:
- Skull crushers
- Overhead triceps extension
- Dumbbell or cable triceps kickbacks
- Dips (machine or bench)
Keep an eye on shoulder and elbow alignment with triceps movements. All of these require external rotation of the elbow, which brings the elbows tighter to the body. Your clients will also need proper mobility through the shoulders—muscle tightness in the pecs will limit this. Be sure to stretch and address this prior to beginning a triceps movement.
Dumbbell Chest Press
This variation of the bench press will differ when using dumbbells. It targets the same basic muscles, but the use of dumbbells will require more shoulder stability and control as the client is creating the range of motion and path of the weight. To progress and challenge your client, place them on an incline bench to target upper pecs and shoulders. They can also begin in the fully flexed starting position and alternate arms for the eccentric movement.
This is a good chance for the trainer to ensure external rotation at the elbows and monitor elbow and wrist position. The wrists should be as flat as possible with the weights resting on the heel of the hands with the thumb wrapped underneath and the fingers over top for a proper grip. The dumbbells should also stay wide at the bottom of the movement—over the elbows versus the shoulder.
This movement focuses on the chest and triceps as well as shoulder stability. The floor press is an under-utilized exercise. It is identical to the dumbbell chest press, but it is performed from the floor. This will limit the eccentric movement as the elbows reach the floor. As the concentric push begins to return the dumbbell to the top, the triceps are more heavily recruited for the press. This is commonly referred to as the “sticking point” in the chest press or bench press. It is the halfway-point of the press on a bench where the triceps must activate to complete the elbow extension.
Focused on the anterior deltoid and the pecs, the chest fly engages the core and shoulder stabilizers with the proper extended range of motion. Commonly done with free weights, you can have your client use cables (standing or seated) as well. The range of motion will be the most effective to engage the full pectoralis if the elbows are extended with a soft bend and kept and mid-chest height, shoulders down and packed.
To progress, try an incline bench or unilateral (single-arm) reps.
Training the Whole Client
Adding these exercises into a client’s routine will help them improve their bench press in less time. You will keep them coming back for more sessions by teaching them in every session and training their body as a whole. This includes everything from the warm-up to the workout and the cool down.
If teaching and fitness are a passion of yours, become an ISSA personal trainer! You can have a career you love waking up for sooner than you think!