Bench Press Variations for Any Client
Of course, the bench press is a great strength exercise for most clients to use on a regular basis. However, week after week, your client may need some variation on this classic movement. Whether training in a large fitness facility or in a home gym, there are many variations you can use to encourage muscle activation and shake up their chest workout!
First Things First
We already know the benefits of a good cardiovascular warm-up followed by a focused, dynamic stretch. We need our clients to get their blood flowing and begin to warm up their joints and muscles before a functional stretch. This helps to prevent injury and primes the body for an external load. For a great resource on the proper and most effective warm-ups as well as a handout to share with your clients, check out this informative ISSA blog post.
The time required to complete an effective warm-up for your client can range from 10 to 20 minutes, so be sure to plan accordingly! Teach them how to start on their own before their session begins if time is limited.
1. Fun with Angles
There are many angles that a bench press can be completed from to target different areas of the pectoralis major and minor (pecs) as well as the deltoids. The standard angle is 30 degrees whether up or down for most benches. The modalities and equipment for the bench press discussed later in this post can be executed from any of the following angles.
The flat bench will target the muscles of the pectoralis major and minor, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, and the triceps brachii. Most standard benches are flat and stable. Most people think of the flat bench when considering a bench press.
Adjusting the bench 30 degrees up will create the perfect incline angle to focus on the upper part of the pecs. It also places a strong emphasis on the anterior deltoids. Anything higher will effectively be an overhead press. With this angle, your client may not be able to lift as heavy as on the flat bench without arching their back or shrugging due to the increased recruitment of the shoulders.
Next, adjust the bench 30 degrees down from the flat bench position. The lower part of the pecs, as well as the deltoids and triceps, are the target for this decline angle. Your client should be able to lift slightly heavier than the flat bench for this push.
Be very mindful of the negative angle—bigger is not necessarily better! Anything lower than 30 degrees may prove too steep of an angle. It may no longer effectively engage the pecs, and may cause dizziness or light-headedness from increased blood flow to the head.
2. The Modality: What Equipment Is Best?
The needs, limitations, and goals of your client will help you decide what modality or modalities will be best to use.
The simple Olympic bar is most commonly associated with the flat bench press. Trainers can explore the wide grip to focus on the pecs or close grip to focus on the triceps. Exploring the bench angles with a barbell offers a unique challenge for a strong and coordinated client.
Dumbbell bench press adds instability in the Deltoids and forces the client to create the desired range of motion both eccentrically and concentrically. Using dumbbells is a great way to challenge a client whether, again, wide, neutral, or close grip based on positioning of the elbows.
A machine for chest press may have any of the angles: flat, incline, or decline. Often you will see the introduction of the seated chest press where the seat is at a 90-degree angle to the backrest and the client presses straight forward. Using a machine will create a very strict range of motion in most cases, thus removing the core stability and balance from the movement. It is a great way to focus on the prime movers.
The cable cross adds an element of instability similar to the dumbbells. Your client can complete this from a bench, seated, or standing. Cables are so dynamic, so, should you choose this modality for your client, get creative! Here are some examples of the cable cross variations:
- Incline bench press (bench supported)
- Decline bench press (bench supported)
- Seated bench press (with or without backrest)
- Standing press (staggered stance with press straight in front)
- Standing decline press (long split stance with decline pressing angle)
If you have a client working on core strength, balance, and stability, the stability ball (or even the BOSU) are solid variations to try. Ensure your client is situated on the ball with their upper back, neck, and head rested on the surface of the ball. Elevat hips off the floor to a flat, plank position. Feet are flat on the ground and glutes and abdominals stay tight and engaged during the reps. For an advanced client, have them lift one leg during the reps. Talk about a core challenge!
Most gyms have resistance band tubing. To challenge the chest, the resistance bands will keep the muscle fibers engaged on the concentric movement, but also keeps tension eccentrically. Wrap them around a bench at any angle or a vertical anchor point. If you are working with time under tension and tempo with your client, resistance bands are the way to go!
Floor, Bench, Stability Ball, or Standing? Which One Is Best?
Who knew there are so many ways to do one basic movement! Each one has its benefits and limitations. Choosing a surface to complete the variation on will determine which equipment can be used. For example, if you choose to have your client stand to engage their core and focus on balance, a barbell will not be used and the weight will need to be adjusted to account for the instability.
In general workout programming, recall the ideal order of progression: Most stable to least stable. With that in mind, always begin a client with a bench or on the floor: the most stable options. As they progress in their programming cycle, add the unstable surface and the standing position if their protocol calls for it. A client working towards hypertrophy may benefit from a stability ball press as a warm-up, but not as the primary movement of focus. A supported modality will allow this client to lift heavy weights to achieve growth.
But, Wait! There’s More!
One last variant to consider: unilateral or bilateral movement. This simply means one arm at a time, or both arms at once in regard to a bench press. Research has shown the benefits of unilateral training on core strength, balance, and prevention of muscular imbalance.
Deeper research shows that more muscle fibers are recruited in each limb when unilateral movement is applied versus bilateral movement resulting in faster strength gains with the proper resistance applied.
The barbell modality is not right for unilateral movement, but the others will work well.
Keeping It All Balanced
Overall balance in training is important. A well-balanced workout program will take into consideration the body balance needed and train the appropriate muscle groups to prevent imbalance and injury. If you, as the trainer, understand body balance and why it is so vital, you can use it as a coaching opportunity for your clients!
Changing up the basic push, pull, squat, lunge, hinge, and rotation movement patterns will keep your clients engaged and coming back for more sessions. They trust you will not only keep them injury-free but also appropriately challenge them to meet their fitness goals.
If you’re ready to gain the knowledge needed to effectively plan workouts for clients and jump into your fitness career, it’s time to get ISSA certified!