This article will cover my take on bench press assistance work. If you’re looking for information about the bench press itself, read my Bench Press 101 article. The approach described in this particular write-up is what helped me get my bench press max to 150kg/331lbs at a body weight of 85kg/187lbs.
A Few Rules
The following is a quick list of rules I have for my training, when it comes to bench press assistance work.
1. Double the bench press volume with upper body horizontal pulling volume.
2. Keep it simple. I try to apply this to all of my training. Simple does not mean easy. It only means that I keep my exercise selection fairly basic whenever possible.
3. Make adjustments over time instead of all at once. This allows me to effectively analyze which approach works best for me.
This makes up the bulk of my assistance work on bench press day. Doing a lot of pulling will build a big strong back and improve your posture. Doing movements like bench press in absence of an adequate amount of pulling volume will usually lead to muscular imbalances, which tend to affect shoulder health negatively among other things in this case. A 2:1 ratio is my goal, so if I do 50 total repetitions on bench press, I do 100 total repetitions of horizontal pulling. The movements below are my personal favorites, but I would at bare minimum suggest you use one type of row and one type of rear delt focused movement. (Note: My vertical pulling is done on Overhead Press day in a similar fashion.)
I recently did an article about the barbell row. The type I personally use is the strict bent over barbell row, which is often referred to as the Pendlay Row. It’s covered in that article, but below is a quick tutorial video.
The Pendlay Row is a lift I use often as my heavy rowing movement and main assistance movement to the bench press. It’s an explosive row from a dead stop on the floor, so I keep the weight heavy and the reps low. I tend to do 2-3 warmup sets of about 5 reps and then move into my work sets. Work sets tend to be 3×3 or ramping up to a heavy single, double or triple. Occasionally the final set will be done for as many reps as possible, usually with a weight I will not be able to get more than 5 or 6 repetitions with.
These are named after Matt Kroczaleski. He did a whole article about them last year here. It’s essentially a heavy dumbbell row done for 20+ reps after a couple warmup sets. If my gym had heavy dumbbells, I would do these to get most of my pulling volume in. They’re awesome. I sometimes do the movement during deload weeks, but it’s not a Kroc Row when it isn’t done with heavy-ass weight! A video is below.
This one is named after John Meadows (the Mountain Dog Diet guy) and it’s basically a one armed corner barbell row. You can use a T-Bar, Chest Supported Row machine or just a barbell to do these. I mainly use them because my gym doesn’t have heavy dumbbells to do Kroc Rows and these are a similar movement. A video is below.
Typically, I’ll use these as a tool to get more rowing volume done after doing heavy Pendlay Rows, so I’ll do one or two warmup sets and then multiple sets of 10 reps or an all out set with a weight I can do 15+ reps with.
Chest Supported Row
I like to use these to top off my pulling volume on bench day. They aren’t as taxing as a barbell row or Meadows Row, so they’re nice for the end of the workout in my opinion. A CSR video is below.
My favorite rear delt movement. I usually do 5 sets of 10 repetitions and superset them with my bench press work. Keep them very light and do them right.
I don’t usually do a lot of extra pressing, aside from Overhead Press (done on another day) within the context of the 5/3/1 program (utilizing techniques described in Beyond 5/3/1). With that being said, I do see that some people might need extra pressing work. For this, I would recommend using various grips, various implements (i.e. dumbbells, barbells, various other bars, chains, bands, etc.) and also train in different positions. Some exercises to consider are below.
The Floor Press (my favorite) is particularly great for upper body strength development. It removes leg drive, which can be utilized in the bench press. I’ve actually replaced bench press for a while with floor press. So far I like it a lot and it seems easier on the shoulders overall.
Decline Bench Press
The decline bench press allows you to use more weight than the flat or incline bench press. It also supposedly targets the lower chest more. I’m not sure if this is just bro science or not though.
Incline Bench Press
Less weight is used than on the flat bench. The upper chest and shoulders are taxed more.
Make sure you do them properly. They’re awesome. Jordan Syatt explains why and how to do them below.
Extra Chest Isolation
The cable fly is a great one. I’m pretty much going to leave it at that. Jonnie Candito does a great job explaining why in the video below.
I don’t personally do a lot of tricep isolation work, but pressdowns and skullcrushers would be my preferred exercises for that. For biceps, I mainly stick to dumbbell curls (which I do on OHP day) and hammer curls (which I do on bench day).
I do mobility and active recovery work daily. On bench day, I usually focus on shoulder mobility and thoracic mobility specifically, but the entire body should be stimulated daily with this type of work in my opinion. That’s if you have the time to do so.
And that wraps this one up. As always, this is all just my opinion. I’m not a doctor or anything like that.