If you think the bench press is an exercise purely for big, muscular guys with gorilla arms and a hunchback, think again. It's actually a fantastic exercise for women. The bench press hits your chest, shoulders and triceps and gives shape to your whole upper body, preventing your torso from becoming scrawny. Building a big bench can be tricky though, so it's vital you have everything in place for the perfect strength-building program.
A typical body-part split will only have you training a muscle group once a week, but this isn't enough for optimal gains. Most powerlifting programs prescribe two weekly bench press sessions -- one heavy and one light "speed" workout. The heavy session should be close on a maximum effort but you should still maintain good form. Your speed workout should be kept relatively light with a focus on moving the bar as quickly as possible to improve technique and build explosiveness.
Sets and Reps
Don't be sucked in by the idea that high reps with light weights burn more fat as this is completely false. For the heavy workouts, keep your reps in the two to six range, advises Molly Galbraith, strength coach and founder of Girls Gone Strong. In the speed workouts, do six sets of two to three reps using a weight that's around half your one rep max (the heaviest weight you can lift for one repetition.) This sounds easy, but the key is to move the bar quickly and imagine you're almost throwing it off your chest.
Progression and Programming
If you train the same, you stay the same, so aim to add a little weight to the bar or perform extra sets or reps every session. Test your one rep max once every eight weeks to see how you're progressing and take a week off bench pressing if your performance goes downhill. Ancillary exercises, such as pushups, dips and dumbbell presses, can really help boost your bench too, so include a few sets of each at the end of every bench workout.
What to Expect
In "Brawn," trainer Stuart McRobert explains that an impressive bench press for the average male is 300 lbs. Don't worry if that sounds impossible though -- women only have around 55 to 65 percent of the upper body strength of men and only elite female powerlifters will get anywhere near this number. Adam Karrah, kettlebell instructor and owner of PracticalPaleolithic.com, says that a strong female should be able to bench press 165 to 210 pounds depending on her body weight. These numbers are within your grasp if you knuckle down and bench like you've never benched before.
- ExRx: Barbell Bench Press (Power Lift)
- Nia Shanks: Different Training Styles & All Produce Incredible Results
- "Brawn": Stuart McRobert: April 2007
- "Science and Practice of Strength Training": Vladimir M. Zatsiorsky: July 2006
Mike Samuels started writing for his own fitness website and local publications in 2008. He graduated from Peter Symonds College in the UK with A Levels in law, business and sports science, and is a fully qualified personal trainer, sports massage therapist and corrective exercise specialist with accreditations from Premier Global International.