Top 4 Bench Press Variation Exercises For Athletes
People the world over love the bench press. Historically, when people ask how much weight do you lift, by implication they’re asking, “How much do you bench?” We all know there are other lifts that are great besides the bench press that demonstrate strength. Still, the bench press is pretty freaking awesome.
As awesome as the bench press is, adding a little variety to how the movement is performed is great for mixing up training and helping break through plateaus. Let’s discuss four movements that can add that variety.
4. Alternating Dumbbell Bench / One Arm Dumbbell Bench
This is one of (two of?) the best bench press exercises for athletes. The reason why this movement is so great for the athlete is that when focusing on unilateral movements, the athlete is required to have more trunk coordination with their upper body. This is one of the best benefits.
Performing the movement(s) requires a focus on the neutral grip and pressing and alternating side-by-side. This is going to force more time under tension; it will also force holding the dumbbell in a precarious position. It lights up the muscle. We use it to start to stimulate some serious growth in athletes.
After becoming competent, strong, and capable at the alternating dumbbell bench press, we will advance our athletes to the one-arm dumbbell bench press. This movement is a progression from the alternating dumbbell press. It can be very, very challenging. It is an effective movement for athletes who participate in football, combat sports and shot putters.
Performing the one-arm dumbbell bench press we want our athletes to squeeze through the abs, so much so that the glutes are clenched. Feel what the abs are doing while pressing the dumbbell. This will carry over very well into the athletic world. It will help the transition from the bench press into the sport’s world. This is a key exercise to enhance sports performance.
We recommend performing one of these movements for five to six sets of six to eight reps with each arm.
3. Close Grip Incline Bench Press
This is one of our favorite bench press variations we use for athletes. Typically the grip in the bench set-up grip is about 18”- 24” apart, depending on how tall the athlete is or how long their arms are. In the close grip, we want the grip to be just about shoulder-width apart. The reason we like this movement is that it lights up the triceps. This is the movement that will help spark the triceps to help hit massive PRs, throw a massive stiff arm, or finish the end of a throw in the shot. It will help in the normal bench press as well.
When setting up for this movement, see where the normal setup for bench pressing starts and move the hands in about 4”- 6”. The hands may be right outside the knurling. Focus on exploding rapidly off the chest--the key here is that the triceps will be super lengthened in this position; it will carry over well for the pecs too.
With that narrow grip, the triceps will be destroyed. It will help with elbow extension and carry over well to the sporting world. We recommend five sets of five to nine reps when performing this movement.
2. Pad Bench Press
The padded bench is an awesome movement. For one, if we have an athlete who struggles in the lockout, we can have them go really, really heavy and focus on coming off the chest into the mid-range to drastically improve the lockout position. This movement will drastically improve the lockout for any athlete in any sport.
Secondly, we like to use this movement with athletes who struggle with controlling the eccentric portion into a solid stretch-shortening cycle. We can have them focus on going slower during the eccentric and then encourage them as they get close to the pad to light up quicker to get higher threshold motor recruitment to help with the drive.
Finally, when peaking athletes, we like using the padded bench for just good, strong speed. We will have athletes to sets at specific weight for times. The timed sets will show us what type of shape they are in and how well they have adapted.
To perform the movement, get a small foam pad, like an Air X pad, and put it on the chest or under the shirt on the chest. With the pad, the athlete can get a nice little bounce off the pad and protect the chest at the same time. Now when doing the timed sets for speed, really focusing on the speed with a greater stretch shortening cycle, we can train the nervous system to move heavy weight very quickly. The pad allows athletes to perform pressing movements with more speed to close the gap between the weight room and the athletic field to help tremendously with sports performance.
This variation can be performed for five sets of five reps.
1. Decline Bench Press
A lot of strength coaches will claim the decline bench press is worthless and then have their athletes do dips. That makes no sense. The dip is essentially a more declined pressing movement.
Think about the decline as a tool to get stronger, improve lockout, improve shoulder girdle and pec strength, and improve elbow extension. We like to use a fat bar on the decline bench. Fat grips will work as well. If access to a fat grip is not applicable, a normal bar will work.
What happens with athletes when doing a flat bench, they may tend to roll their elbows out. That typically means weak tricep drive. Utilizing the decline with a quarter rep before the full rep not only lights up the triceps but adds a stretch reflex into the movement to help make gains. In addition, it is a range of movement typically not trained which creates neural noise to improve technical coordination with the movement. This movement will help break through a ton of plateaus as well as improve sports performance in any sport that requires elbow extension.
We recommend five sets of seven to twelve reps when performing this movement.
Adding these movements into bench press training will help sports performance greatly. The variations above showcase manners to coordinate more muscles, target weaknesses in the horizontal pressing movement, increase speed and explosiveness and put the body in vicarious positions that are not typically trained from. In turn, all the movements contribute to heightened ability to extend at the elbow, solidify the shoulder girdle, and flat out help pack a punch during sports performance.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.