Bench Press for Gaining Strength vs Building Muscle

Ah, the almighty bench press. I was frightened at the sight of it when I first started lifting. Bench press seems to be what many measure your overall strength by. If I had a buck for every time someone asked me ‘Hey man, how much do you bench?’ I’d be rich. People usually don’t ask how much can you squat, or deadlift, or push on incline barbell press; they ask how much can you bench press. For that reason alone, many beginner’s focus more on bench press than any other lift. What I want to discuss today is using the bench press for gaining strength versus building muscle.

There’s no doubt that the bench press will help you get stronger and build a bigger, more muscular chest. However, one is going to precede the other depending on how you train. If you’re a powerlifter, you’re not concerned about your physique as your goal is to lift as much weight as you can for a one-rep max. If you’re training as a bodybuilder, the amount of weight should not concern you as much as building and shaping your muscles. Both goals require different approaches.

Bench Pressing for Strength

If you’re training to get stronger then you want to focus on power and speed. You’re going to spend a lot of time on the bench press using a variety of techniques such as low rep training, lock outs, partial reps, negatives, speed reps, etc. You have to get your muscles used to pushing heavy weight and hitting your one-rep max. There’s also a variety of speed training techniques used with lighter weights to increase power (obviously used in conjunction with heavy, lower rep workouts). Most professional powerlifters do not have the muscular shaped chest of a bodybuilder. Also, a powerlifter’s diet is not as strict as a bodybuilding diet as they need far more calories in order to get stronger.

Bench Pressing to Build Muscle

Using the bench press to build a bigger chest requires a different approach than training merely for strength. You need to focus more on feeling the muscles work and muscle contractions. You may integrate some of the training techniques for strength and power into your chest workout program but for the most part you’re going to be throwing up more reps. You also need to do a variety of chest exercises, especially hitting incline exercises for chest such as incline barbell press, incline dumbbell, press, and incline dumbbell flyes (not necessarily in the same workout). I emphasize on incline movements because those will really build and shape your chest (better than flat bench press, in my opinion). Most bodybuilders are not super strong compared to¬†powerlifting¬†standards. Another note is the calorie restrictions bodybuilders have in order to maintain a certain look, which can hinder strength gains.

Can you train for both strength and to build muscle? Sure, but remember one is ultimately going to precede the other. Many call this ‘powerbuilding.’ I’m a firm believer in using heavy weights to build muscle (which also helps increase strength). But I also believe you need a variety of exercises, not just bench press, and higher reps need to be implemented into your chest workout. Time under tension is also important for building muscle.

I’ve never had a great bench press (and still don’t compared to most dudes my weight/size). And although my training is geared towards bodybuilding, I still want to be strong so I do implement some weight lifting techniques to help increase strength such as negatives, 5 x 5 method, and lower reps. But I’ll usually only do that for only one exercise (such as bench press). The rest of my workout is focused on building the muscle through more reps, contracting the muscle, drop sets, and such.

Train with Passion,

Jason Stallworth

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