Getting Started: The Bench Press


The bench press is practically synonymous with resistance training. As you’d expect this results in a large emphasis on benching among newbie gym goers chasing a brag-worthy answer to that persistent question:

“How much can you bench?”

I’m going to tell you right now, don’t go hoping for a bigger bench overnight.  Bench pressing progresses slowly but it does so consistently if you do it right.  Build your pressing power without deficiencies and you’ll finally have a satisfying answer to the above question.

Starting with Push Ups

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Most people that I have met that are unable to perform a single push up think it makes sense to start with bench pressing light weight. The reasoning is usually that they can press a couple of dumbbells that are lighter than their entire body so it gives them a place to start. This method has some truth to it and isn’t inherently bad, however I prefer to make the push up easier and progress towards perfection with push ups before starting with external weights.

Let’s star with set up.  Push ups begin in what’s called the “high plank” position.  Your feet should be together, hands directly under your shoulders, and spine flat (neck too).  You should be able to assume this high plank position and hold it taught for at least one minute.  If you can’t hold the high plank for one solid minute then you may want to start with holding high planks for sets of 10-20 seconds until you can.

Next we have the lowering phase.  Keep your back flat and legs stiff while slowly bringing your chest towards the ground while keeping your elbows close to your sides.  Think of your body as a stiff wooden board and your arm, shoulder, and chest muscles are a jack controlling the ascent/descent of the board.

Stop lowering once your chest is within 2-3 inches of the ground.  Keeping your elbows by your sides forcefully contract your chest muscles and extend your elbows.  You should feel activation in the two prime movers of the push up: the chest muscles and the triceps.  You should return to the high plank position you began in.

To test yourself start with trying to complete 12 perfect push ups.  Don’t lie to yourself if they start to get sloppy, make them as clean as possible.  If you can complete 12 perfect push ups then you can proceed onto the bench press section.  If you cannot complete 12 perfect push ups try the following progression:

  • Take 50% of the amount of perfect push ups you could do, round down if needed.
    • Example: I could complete 9 push ups, then I use 4.
  • For 4 days complete 4-6 sets of perfect push ups of the number above, resting 3+ minutes between sets.
    • Example: I would then do 4-6 sets of 4 push ups for the next 4 workout days.
  • On your fifth workout day try to go for 12+ perfect push ups again.  If you hit 12 go onto the next section, if you don’t repeat this progression.

Approaching the Bench

Photo by Mandarina1997 – Wikimedia commons

Once you’ve established that you can accomplish at least 12 perfect push ups you are ready to get under the barbell.  Start by simple experimentation; lie on the bench and experiment with where you are comfortable unracking the bar from and do a few practice reps (2-4).  Typically people like to put their clavicles almost directly underneath the bar in the racked position but this may prove difficult for some, play around with it.

The next most important things to consider when setting up are the location of your feet, butt, and upper back.  Your feet should be firmly planted on the ground and assuming a wide stance, your butt and upper back should be making solid contact with the bench.  Don’t worry about emulating those crazy back arches you’ve seen on instagram, that’s not a beginner technique and should be developed under the supervision of an experienced trainer.

From this set up position put your arms straight out, letting your hands go past the bars (think of doing a zombie walk kind of look).  Note where your forearms line up with the bar, this tends to be a good marker for where you should put your index finger when gripping the bar.  Lower your hands to the bar and grip the bar.  Tighten your grip and shoulders before lifting the bar, you can do this by imagining that you are trying to bend the bar. Push the bar upwards to unpack it.

From this top position slowly lower the bar towards the bottom portion of your chest while keeping your elbows near your sides.  Notice that these instructions are very similar to the instructions for the lowering part of a pushup.  Let the bar make gentle contact with the bottom of your chest, don’t let it crash into your sternum! From here contract your chest muscles forcefully and extend your elbows to drive the bar upward.  You should feel the two prime movers of the bench press, the pectorals and triceps, being activated.

Once you have the basic movement pattern of the bench press established you’re ready to start moving some weight.  There are a lot of really good power lifting progressions for increasing your bench press but if you’re new to bench pressing (i.e. Your maximum bench press is less than 80% of your bodyweight) the best method tends to be simply increasing your exposure.  If you’re in this boat try the following protocol:

  • Bench Press 1-2 times a week with at least 1 day rest between sessions.
  • Bench Press for 2-3 warm up sets, and 3-4 working sets.
  • Working sets should have a simple progression like staying within 8-12 reps.
    • If you can do more than 12 reps, increase the weight.
    • If you can’t do at least 8 reps, decrease the weight.

Try this basic protocol and when you finally hit a wall with some heavy weight then move on to one of the more developed programs.  Such as the Brawn for Brains Big 3: Bench Press Progression.


The Big 3: The Squat

Everyone has fun building up their deadlift or the bench but the squat is often overlooked. There are tons of reasons for this (limited mobility, weak core, imbalances, funky leg:hip ratios, etc…), each of which is an article in itself but the common truth I find in people that avoid squats is simple: they aren’t good at them.

Goblet Squat

Goblet Squat

If you’re new to the squat then check out our introductory article here. Before you get going on having a heavy barbell squat make sure that you have a solid goblet squat (pictured) and can keep your back flat throughout the movement.  

Squats are a technical lift and there is a large difference between performing a decent squat and a great squat. If you want to get to the point that you have a great squat then you need to do a lot squats. With this in mind the program we are going to use to bring up our squat poundage will necessitate squatting twice per week. Additionally the legs respond very well to high volume work and some of these days will have you working in a variety of rep ranges.

Your new Squat Program

To start off we need to calculate your bench press 1 rep max (1RM), this is the maximal amount you can lift for one rep. You can test for your 1RM directly but I only recommend this if you have at least 8 months of experience and a training partner. Alternatively you can use a weight you are more comfortable with and perform reps until failure and estimate your 1RM with a calculator.

Each legs day you will perform:

  • 3 Warm up sets of Squats
  • Assigned Working Sets of Squats
  • 3 Sets of Lunges (Optional)

While this may not sound like a lot of volume we are actually going to be performing two leg days per week.  Space them out however works best for you but I suggest putting at least 72 hours between sessions (e.g. Monday and Thursday).

One total cycle of this program will take 7 weeks in total. It breaks down like this:

Note: Layout is “(Weight as a % of 1RM) x # of Sets x # of Reps per set”

Microcycle 1 (2 weeks)

Day 1 Day 2
Week 1 (70%) x 4 x 9 (75%) x 5 x 7
Week 2 (80%) x 7 x 5 (85%) x 9 x 3

Microcycle 2 (2 weeks)

Day 1 Day 2
Week 1 (72.5%) x 4 x 9 (77.5%) x 5 x 7
Week 2 (82.5%) x 7 x 5 (87.5%) x 9 x 3

Microcycle 3 (2 weeks)

Day 1 Day 2
Week 1 (75%) x 4 x 9 (80%) x 5 x 7
Week 2 (85%) x 7 x 5 (90%) x 9 x 3

Deload (1 week)

Week 1 (50%) x 4 x 7 (40%) x 5 x 9

Optional Sets: Lunges

Lunges are an excellent isolate real exercise to perform after squats. They can really highlight imbalances between the left and right sides. The reason they are optional is because the amount of working sets for squats regularly varies and there may be instances in which lunges as the end of your workout will not be feasible.

Lunges (4-6 Reps each side)

Start with a weight that you are certain you can perform for 8 reps on each side.  Aim for performing 4-6 reps. If you can perform 6 reps for 2 consecutive sets then increase the weight for the next set by 10 lbs.  If you cannot perform at least 4 reps for a single set them drop the weight to 80% for the next set.  This will be your new starting point for the next legs day.  Rest 2.5 minutes between sets

If you’re new to performing lunges start by using dumbbells to add resistance, this is less likely to offset your balance.  Advanced trainees should use a barbell loaded on their back, similar to a squat set up.

Photos courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Putting it to use

What I like about this set up is the freedom it gives. At the end of 7 weeks you’re free to try another program, give this one another go, or even modify it for your purposes. I’ve completed a number of rounds of this program and each time my squat has gotten deeper, cleaner, and stronger. And that’s why I am sharing it with you.

Tell me your thoughts on this squat program on Facebook (, Instagram, and Twitter (@brawnforbrains).